Obama’s Succinct Description Of Neoconservatism: ‘The Satisfying Purity Of Indignation’

obama nobelTwo responses from prominent neoconservatives on President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech reveal something very positive about Obama’s reframing of U.S. national security.

Comparing passages from the Oslo speech and George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, Bill Kristol seems to think that it’s noteworthy that both Presidents Obama and Bush are in favor of using U.S. power to combat terrorism and extremism, the implication being that this in some way vindicates Bush’s neoconservative-inspired “global war on terror” approach to national security. (Adam Serwer dismantles this idea here.)

Neoconservative pundit Daniel Pipes, however, laments that “the war on terror” is precisely what was missing from the speech. Noting Obama’s statement that “I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” Pipes replies:

And here I thought there were three wars. Obama’s two are Iraq and Afghanistan; missing is what George W. Bush termed the War on Terror and I call the “war on radical Islam.” Obama apparently reduces that third one to al-Qaeda and counts it as part of the Afghan war. His mistake has real consequences; long after American troops have left Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamists will be attacking and subverting us. If we don’t see their efforts as a war, we lose.

Say what you will about Daniel Pipes — and there’s quite a bit to say — he’s never really been interested sanding the edges off his views. See, for example, his admission that he would prefer that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win Iran’s presidential elections, because, as Pipes put it, “I would prefer to have an enemy who is forthright and blatant and obvious.” In other words, Pipes may be a crank, but he’s an honest crank. Kristol, on the other hand, is a blatant propagandist with record of floating comically transparent bad-faith arguments aimed primarily at buttressing his own position of influence.

This is probably one of the few times that I’ll ever agree with Daniel Pipes: Yes, President Obama has rejected the war on “radical Islam,” broadly defined, that the neoconservatives briefly and disastrously sold to America, and chosen instead to disaggregate and more narrowly define America’s enemies. Unlike Pipes, however, I think this is altogether a good thing.

The president’s clearest rejection of neoconservatism, which Bush himself had largely rejected by the end of his presidency, came about half-way through the speech, when Obama defended engagement with repressive governments on the grounds that “The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone.”

At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

“The satisfying purity of indignation.” That’s a wonderfully succinct description of the simplistic and destructive ideology that drove George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and which Bill Kristol is still trying heartily to convince himself and others hasn’t been discredited. This isn’t to say that Obama hasn’t retained some troubling elements of Bush’s national security policy, which progressives will continue to challenge and debate. But I think it’s hugely important to recognize that the key foreign policy conceit of the Bush years, the idea that America is in an existential struggle with a monolithic, undifferentiated Islamofascist other, has been discarded. And America — and the world — is safer for that.