Religion is creating havoc in the world. Authoritarian governments are collapsing in the Middle East, and in the absence of credible alternatives, Sunni and Shi’ite religious groupings, fueled by ancient hatreds, are fighting each other to fill the void.
President Obama gave a speech last week on what to do about it. It was a sane and sensible speech, and one that may have drawn some inspiration from a Protestant minister who was a profound political thinker and one of America’s great public intellectuals of the mid-20th century.
In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” “I love him,” Obama said, and despite the fact that Niebuhr was not a philosopher but a theologian, the President-to-be proceeded to give a very respectable capsule summary of his thinking.
Niebuhr is mentioned less frequently these days, but I heard a distinct Niebuhrian strain in the President’s speech. And that is a good thing. There is no foreign policy consensus today; in fact, there is barely any foreign policy coherence. The Republicans veer wildly from the interventionism of John McCain to the isolationism of Rand Paul. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is dismissive of the President’s foreign policy positions but seems to have none of her own. Yet amidst this confusion, the President spoke wisely and well, and I heard in his words some of the clarity, depth, and moral power that characterize the writings of his “favorite philosopher.”
A liberal clergyman, Niebuhr wrote forcefully about original sin and the existence of evil in the world. Setting aside the pacifism of his youth, he came to believe that liberal reformers too often exaggerate human goodness. And since nations are even more flawed than individuals, he saw power politics as inevitable. This meant that if justice were to be achieved in this world, America would have to be prepared to exercise the power that she possesses. For great nations in a messy world, there is no opting out; great powers must take chances and get their hands dirty in order to do right.
In this vein, the President was specific about the evil that is ISIS; he spoke of the attempted genocide, the mass executions, the abuse of women, and the killing of children. He mentioned the gruesome beheadings of American journalists. And he spoke as well of America’s obligation to lead in the world and to promote both justice and freedom, and did so with more passion than has been his custom of late.
But there is another side to Niebuhr, and there was another side to the President’s speech. Niebuhr affirmed power but also feared it. While individuals are sometimes humble, he believed that nations—and especially great powers—never are. They assume that they can change the world in ways they cannot. They act for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they are supposedly helping. They deify their own states and their own intentions. They fail to ask if what they are undertaking will help or hurt. And they do all of this, often, with the very best of intentions, certain of their own virtue. And the result? Tragedies such as Vietnam, where American pretensions led not to the justice that Americans aspired to but to suffering and disaster.
The President, it seemed to me, was clearly aware of the dangers of overreach, and he did a reasonably good job, to use David Brooks’ phrase, of “thread(ing) the Niebuhrian needle.” He talked about things that America can reasonably expect to accomplish, such as air strikes on ISIS targets and delivering humanitarian aid. He avoided the temptation to inflate the threat of terrorism, even as he pledged to keep America safe. And he refrained from the language of jingoism and belligerence to which such occasions lend themselves. And above all, he made a firm commitment that American troops would not fight a battle that, if it is to be won, must be fought by Arab armies. In short, the President more or less succeeded in balancing American assertiveness with the humility that Niebuhr prized as the essential—and usually the missing—ingredient of American foreign policy.
And this too: Niebuhr was an enthusiastic champion of the checks and balances of the Constitution. He was reassured by the idea that each branch of government would ride herd on the others and thereby prevent abuses of power in pursuing foreign adventures. Here too the President got it right in calling for the full and robust engagement of the Congress in authorizing and shaping the campaign against ISIS.
I have no doubt that the President will be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the warmongering elements of the opposition, but I find his performance impressive. The American people needed to hear a plan, and they did; they needed to be reassured, and they were. And they needed to know, as they now do, that their government will not rush off and engage us in a battle that will exacerbate rather than calm the deeply troubled waters of the Middle East, taking many American lives in the process.
What would Reinhold Niebuhr say? I can only speculate. He died in 1971, and we will never know what he would say or do. But my guess is that the President was paying attention to his teachings, and the great theologian would be pleased.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.