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Moralism on the Shelf

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The 19th century ended, as we all know, not in 1900 but 14 years later, when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- and the world promptly went mad. In a similar way, the 20th century did not end until this very year, when, among other things, President Barack Obama implied that he would not rule out talking with more moderate elements of the Taliban. What Henry Luce called "the American Century" is over.

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Obama's apparent willingness to divide the Taliban into awful and less awful is just the latest sign that a sterile but necessary realism has settled over American foreign policy. In recent days alone, the Obama administration has indicated that it is willing -- for the moment -- to hold its tongue regarding China's voluminous human rights abuses and has hit the "reset button" on relations with Moscow, Vladimir Putin's neo-Stalinist fits notwithstanding. As for Israel's insistence on expanding West Bank settlements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced it as "unhelpful" -- a whisper of a rebuke that, in the transcript, should have been rendered in italics.

The Obama administration is talking to the Syrians. It is willing to talk to the Iranians. It will parley with the North Koreans. It has kicked the wheels off the "Axis of Evil" and has, in general, shied from the lofty language of the Bush years, especially all that stuff about wars on terrorism and spreading democracy. This is an administration to bring a lump to the throat of Brent Scowcroft, the arch realist, who has never mistaken foreign policy for missionary work, even though they both usually take place abroad.

For the most part, this is good. Even George Bush was starting to realize that he had overreached, overdreamed, underthought and underanalyzed. The war in Iraq is coming up on its seventh year, and the one in Afghanistan has lasted even longer. The Taliban have gone and come, and the democracy movement in the Middle East has withered from an utter lack of enthusiasm, not to mention a lack of democratic leaders.

Obama will get no lip from the left about his new foreign policy. Liberalism has been blanched of a pronounced moral component. That -- in furious exaggeration -- is now the province of conservatism. The liberal New York Review of Books published an open letter from literary notables asking President-elect Obama to "negotiate with the Taliban [and] withdraw all troops from Afghanistan." No mention was made of Afghanistan's shaky neighbor, Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, or for that matter of Afghan girls who have the effrontery to crack a book.

Right there is the danger Obama runs. The Taliban are bad. They kill their opposition. They are hideous to women, and when they were in control of Afghanistan, they sheltered al-Qaeda. In Vietnam, it was always possible to insist that the communists were really agrarian reformers -- or some such mindless formulation -- and so when the United States capitulated, the resulting horror came as a surprise to some. No one, though, can be surprised by what the Taliban will do. In the very recent past, they have already done it.

Winston Churchill supposedly once asked his wife to have a pudding removed from his table -- because "it has no theme." In the same way, a "realistic" foreign policy also lacks theme or, more to the point, an overarching desire to do good. America's enemies are never merely our opponents; they are evil. We are good. This is the way we see ourselves. The abandonment of Vietnam was sickening to observe. The disfigurement of schoolgirls by Taliban zealots will be no different.

Obama is right to be realistic and to abjure bombastic rhetoric. Moralism is expensive -- costly in blood and treasure. This is the new reality. The danger is that we will turn inward -- not isolationist, because that is impossible -- but financially exhausted and callously indifferent to the rest of the world.

This is a tricky, auspicious moment for a young president. He is ending one century, beginning another. Concisely, he essentially laid out his approach to foreign policy in a blurb for a recently reissued book by the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote that he took away from Niebuhr's works "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain." He added that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction."

This, then, is the Obama Doctrine: wisely, to have none at all.

cohenr@washpost.com




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