Myriad calls have been made for intervention in Syria. President Obama has been blamed with everything from “feeble paralysis most foul” to subcontracting “foreign policy to the likes of Qatar” and lacking principle in his national security calculus. Supposedly, Syria is an opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize awarded him in 2009. Or in John McCain’s words: President Obama’s leadership in the matter has been “shameful and disgraceful.”

Far from callous moral indifference, however, President Obama’s foreign policy appears to be motivated by a profound commitment to prudence—the acceptance of a fact that makes neo-cons writhe: that America’s ability to accomplish good is limited and that the world is complicated. In an interview at the end of January, President Obama described his struggle with the relationship between U.S. power and the evil of the world. “A big chunk of my day,” he explained,

is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity. And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.

These are not the thoughts of a Machiavellian practitioner of realpolitik, nor are they those of an armed idealist on a crusade to irradiate evil, nor are they the thoughts of a naïve utopian seeking to remake the world in America’s image. Rather, they are profoundly Niebuhrian. Perhaps this should be no surprise. In 2007, while still a senator, Obama famously declared Reinhold Niebuhr one of his “favorite philosophers”: “I take away [from his works],” he said, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And 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.” In other words, good and evil exist in unresolved and unresolvable tension—and we’re caught up in the paradox, and we make the best of it that we can.

Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century, warned that “even the most powerful nations cannot master their own destiny,” much less manage history. He asked instead for “a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history’s] perplexities.” Where others spoke of inevitability, he spoke of hubris. Where others spoke of certainty, he begged for self-examination. Where others demanded solutions, he pleaded for caution.

President Obama’s foreign policy towards Syria has reflected both America’s intense opposition to new wars in the Middle East and his own recognition of the limits of power and the reality of tragedy. For his prudence, President Obama should be praised. And as for the ire of the intellectuals, perhaps they should stop criticizing President Obama long enough to ponder Niebuhr’s words: “The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”

Jared McKinney studied history at Patrick Henry College and is a graduate student in defense and strategic studies at Missouri State University (Fairfax, VA).

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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  1. It’s heartening that we have a President who has even heard of of Reinhold Niebuhr, much less one who has read him and has taken his wisdom to heart. That’s a huge improvement over having a President who, when asked to name his favorite political philosopher, replied “Christ, because he changed my heart,” and who then went on to involve this country in two wars, at least one of which was entirely unnecessary, illegal, and immoral. The understanding that “good and evil exist in unresolved and unresolvable tension—and we’re caught up in the paradox, and we make the best of it that we can” is a mark of humility and humanity, and it’s something that all of us (not just Presidents) forget at our peril.

  2. Truth is indeed illusive, even for those of us who claim and think to seek it; however, if one indeed quests for truth, one seeks such sources, usually always flawed, even the best, in some way, which will give one a chance of piecing together a mosaic which approximates the truth concerning a given matter.

    It would, therefore, behoove the seeker in the matter of Mr. Obama’s policy toward Syria to get outside the American “debate” and the blinders which its parameters impose. The Internet, for all of its weaknesses, is one means by which one can venture beyond the partisans parameters which circumscribe information and knowledge about the conflict. To the best of my ability, I have done that and have concluded that the hand of the United States government and its surrogates – NATO, the EU, Saudi Arabia, and others – has been and remains very strong as is escalating. Given the already existing power of the imperial Presidency and the further power which this President has amassed, one would be hard pressed to believe that his hand is not animating the glove.

    Thus, the good cop (Obama)/bad cop (McCain) is for the consumption of naive Americans. Obama’s Niebuhresque acknowledgments provide an “intellectual” and even “spiritual” cover for a more pedestrian agenda of stealth and deception. Tyrants can be tactically prudent as they inexorably pursue their goals, both pedestrian and ideological.

  3. First, Reinhold Niebuhr is hardly a philosopher (I know, Obama’s words, not your own). Second, the reading of said white-bread hack heterodox minister is hardly meritorious.

  4. Jared – A very well written, and well argued piece, in general. While I’m a throughgoing conservative (and a veteran of Afghanistan), I’d cast my lot with a realistic, prudent foreign policy of a democratic President than the wildly unconstrained and utopian foreign policy of an ostensibly conservative president such as George W. Bush. That being said, I still find it very difficult to echo your praise for President Obama’s foreign policy – that is, if you intend for your readers to understand Obama’s Syria policy as part of a larger, coherent, intelligible whole. If Obama really is guided by such strong convictions about the inherent limitations of U.S. military power, what explains his continued commitment of American troops to Afghanistan? As of today, U.S. American deaths in Afghanistan under Obama are almost triple in four years under Obama what they were in almost seven years under George W. Bush. Furthermore, roughly 80% of all U.S. combat injuries in Afghanistan have occured under Obama’s watch. As someone who watches the media quite closely, I am utterly baffled at the darth of attention that Obama’s Afghanistan policy has received. If Obama believes that extending our commitment to Afghanistan through 2014 somehow “advance[s] our national interest, advance[s] our security, and speak[s] to our highest ideals,” it still eludes me how it will manage to do so. Instead, it seems that as long as Obama can come out and reassure us every so often that our commitment to Afghanistan is finite, rather than open-ended, we can all put our concerns to rest, and Obama will remain “off the hook,” so to speak, for whatever happens there – since, after all, it wasn’t “his” war. Sure, Obama would immediately recoil at any suggestion that he was attempting any kind of “nation-building”in Afghanistan. But if we aren’t “nation-building” there, what the heck ARE we really doing? And if Obama really has learned to eschew any and all traces of the adventurism that failed so spectacularly in Iraq, shouldn’t he have already discerned that our efforts to train, advise, and assist the government and military of Afghanistan (in order to better secure our own interests in the region) are destined to fail even more spectacularly in Afghanistan? After all, as any veteran of that war can attest after a relatively brief deployment to that country, Afghanistan was (and still remains) a dysfunctional, tribal kleptocracy many orders of magnitude beyond what Iraq ever was (or is today). In other words, I can appreciate Obama’s prudent and circumspect approach towards Syria today. But as someone who has lost two close friends in Afghanistan in just the last year, I simply can’t commend that policy without immediately qualifying it – by wishing that Obama had the wisdom to pull a page from his playbook in Syria, and do us all a favor by applying it to Afghanistan.

  5. @Mike–thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I think you are probably correct: there is not a general coherence in President Obama’s foreign policy. I do think, though, it would be fair to make a distinction between problems President Obama inherited (Iraq and Afghanistan) and new situations he has been confronted with (e.g., Libya and Syria). Two years ago over at Foreign Policy Bruce Ackerman made the same point as you–that for all of the President’s rhetoric, he has been quite happy to expand the executive’s power ( As for Syria, the ways things are looking, we’ll be lucky if prudence remains our policy. We seem to be edging closer to more serious intervention. I suspect the immense pressure various groups (AEI, Brookings, etc.) generate is hard to withstand in the long run.

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