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In a speech made after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama criticized the media’s use of the word mastermind to describe Abdelhamid Abaaoud. “He’s not a mastermind,” he stated. “He found a few other vicious people, got hands on some fairly conventional weapons, and sadly, it turns out that if you’re willing to die you can kill a lot of people.”
The world has been mourning the passing ofHarper Lee. President Barack Obama (pictured, via) wrote a post on Facebook to praise the To Kill a Mockingbird author.
Here’s an excerpt from Obama’s post: “Ms. Lee changed America for the better. And there is no higher tribute we can offer her than to keep telling this timeless American story – to our students, to our neighbors, and to our children – and to constantly try, in our own lives, to finally see each other.”
It would seem that President Obama has a new prey in his sites. It is, however, a target that he has hunted for some time but never really managed to wound, let alone kill. The focus of Obama’s attention is gun violence and the aim is really to make American communities safer places to live.
Announced on January 13th by President Obama in his eighth and final State of the Union Address, the multi-billion dollar project will be led by US Vice President, Joe Biden, who has a vested interest in seeing new cures for cancer. Using genomics to cure cancer is being held on par with JFK’s desire in 1961 to land men on the moon.
On 7 January, 2016, I asked Google, “what religion is Barack Obama”? After considering the problem for .42 seconds, Google offered more than 34 million “results.” The most obvious answer was at the top, accentuated by a rectangular border, with the large word “Muslim.” Beneath that one word read the line, “Though Obama is a practicing Christian and he was chiefly raised by his mother and her Christian parents…” Thank you, Google.
President Barack Obama and his family will be spending some time in Hawaii for a winter vacation. The Washington Post reports that the White House has unveiled his vacation reading list. If you want to take on this presidential reading challenge, we’ve put together the commander-in-chief’s four books with links to free samples of each title. (via Entertainment Weekly)
Barack Obama’s favorite book of the year was, Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff, according to People.
A finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards for fiction, the novel tells the story of a marriage from two perspectives — the husband’s and the wife’s — over the course of twenty-four years. The title was NPR Morning Edition’s first book club pick.
Michelle Obama’s favorite book of the year also focuses on marriage. Obama selected, The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander, a memoir about the sudden death of her husband.
Writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Julia Alvarez have been awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Here’s more from the press release: “The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government. It is awarded by the President of the United States to individuals or groups who are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.”
President Barack Obama himself presented all the recipients with their medals in a ceremony at the White House. Follow these links to check out podcasts featuring Kingston and Alvarez. (Photo Credit: Jocelyn Augustino)
President Barack Obama (pictured, via) will present 19 individuals with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
According to the White House blog, this award is considered to be “our Nation’s highest civilian honor.” The people within this group work in a broad range of fields such as activism, art, politics, science, and of course writing.
The authors who have been recognized with this award include Isabel Allende, Tom Brokaw, and Marlo Thomas. A ceremony will be held at the White House on November 24, 2014.
Autumn is here again – in England, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, in the US also the season of Thanksgiving. On the fourth Thursday in November, schoolchildren across the country will stage pageants, some playing black-suited Puritans, others Native Americans bedecked with feathers. By tradition, Barack Obama will ‘pardon’ a turkey, but 46 million others will be eaten in a feast complete with corncobs and pumpkin pie. The holiday has a long history: Lincoln fixed the date (amended by Roosevelt in 1941), and Washington made it a national event. Its origins, of course, lay in the Pilgrim Fathers’ first harvest of 1621.
Who now remembers who these intrepid migrants were – not the early ‘founding fathers’ they became, but who they were when they left? The pageant pilgrims are undifferentiated. Who knows the name of Christopher Martin, a merchant from Billericay near Chelmsford in Essex? He took his whole family on the Mayflower, most of whom, including Martin himself, perished in New Plymouth’s first winter. They died Essex folk in a strange land: there was nothing ‘American’ about them. And as for Thanksgiving, well that habit came from the harvest festivals and religious observances of Protestant England. Even pumpkin pie was an English dish, exported then forgotten on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
Towns like Billericay, Chelmsford and Colchester were crucial to American colonization: ordinary places that produced extraordinary people. The trickle of migrants in the 1620s, in the next decade became a flood, leading to some remarkable transformations. In 1630 Francis Wainwright was drawing ale and clearing pots in a Chelmsford inn when his master, Alexander Knight, decided to emigrate to Massachusetts. It was an age of austerity, of bad harvests and depression in the cloth industry. Plus those who wanted the Protestant Reformation to go further – Puritans – feared that under Charles I it was slipping backwards. Many thought they would try their luck elsewhere until England’s fortunes were restored, perhaps even that by building a ‘new’ England they could help with this restoration. Wainwright, aged about fourteen, went with Knight, and so entered a world of hardship and danger and wonder.
One May dawn, seven years later, Wainwright was standing by the Mystic River in Connecticut, one of seventy troops waiting to shoot at approaching Pequot warriors. According to an observer, the Englishmen ‘being bereaved of pity, fell upon the work without compassion’, and by dusk 400 Indians lay dead in their ruined encampment. The innkeeper’s apprentice had fired until his ammunition was exhausted, then used his musket as a club. One participant celebrated the victory, remarking that English guns had been so fearsome, it was ‘as though the finger of God had touched both match and flint’. Another rejoiced that providence had made a ‘fiery oven’ of the Pequots’ fort. Wainwright took two native heads home as souvenirs. Unlike many migrants, he stayed in America, proud to be a New Englander, English by birth but made different by experience. He lived a long life in commerce, through many fears and alarms, and died at Salem in 1692 during the white heat of the witch-trials.
The story poses hard historical questions. What is identity, and how does it change? Thanksgiving pageants turn Englishmen into Americans as if by magic; but the reality was more gradual and nuanced. Recently much scholarly energy has been poured into understanding past emotions. We may think our emotions are private, but they leak out all the time; we may even use them to get what we want. Converted into word and deed, emotions leave traces in the historical record. When the Pilgrim William Bradford called the Pequot massacre ‘a sweet sacrifice’, he was not exactly happy but certainly pleased that God’s will had been done.
Puritans are not usually associated with emotion, but they were deeply sensitive to human and divine behaviour, especially in the colonies. Settlers were proud to be God’s chosen people – like Israelites in the wilderness – yet pride brought shame, followed by doubt that God liked them at all. Introspection led to wretchedness, which was cured by the Holy Spirit, and they were back to their old censorious selves. In England, even fellow Puritans thought they’d lost the plot, as did most (non-Puritan) New Englanders. But godly colonists established what historians call an ‘emotional regime’ or ‘emotional community’ in which their tears and thunder were not only acceptable but carried great political authority.
John Winthrop, the leader of the fleet that carried Francis Wainwright to New England, was an intensely emotional man who loved his wife and children almost as much as he loved God. Gaunt, ascetic and tirelessly judgmental, he became Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, driven by dreams of building a ‘city upon a hill’. It didn’t quite work out: Boston grew too quickly, and became diverse and worldly. And not everyone cared for Winthrop’s definition of liberty: freedom to obey him and his personal interpretation of God’s designs. But presidents from Reagan to Obama have been drawn to ‘the city upon the hill’ as an emotionally potent metaphor for the US in its mission to inspire, assist, and police the world.
Winthrop’s feelings, however, came from and were directed at England. His friend Thomas Hooker, ‘the father of Connecticut’, cut his teeth as a clergyman in Chelmsford when Francis Wainwright lived there. Partly thanks to Wainwright, one assumes, he found the town full of drunks, with ‘more profaneness than devotion’. But Hooker ‘quickly cleared streets of this disorder’. The ‘city upon the hill’, then, was not a blueprint for America, but an exemplar to help England reform itself. Indeed, long before the idea was associated with Massachusetts, it related to English towns – notably Colchester – that aspired to be righteous commonwealths in a country many felt was going to the dogs. Revellers did not disappear from Chelmsford and Colchester – try visiting on a Saturday night – but, as preachers and merchants and warriors, its people did sow the seeds from which grew the most powerful nation in the world.
So if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this year, or you know someone who is, it’s worth remembering that the first colonists to give thanks were not just generic Old World exiles, uniformly dull until America made them special, but living, breathing emotional individuals with hearts and minds rooted in English towns and shires. To them, the New World was not an upgrade on England: it was a space in which to return their beloved country to its former glories.
Featured image credit: Signing of the Constitution, by Thomas P. Rossiter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
World-renowed author James Patterson has launched the #SaveOurBooks campaign. The video embedded above features a controversial scene of book burning.
Patterson aims to elicit a pledge of support from President Barack Obama; he hopes to have Obama declare his concern about the state of reading within the country, appear in public carrying a book, and visit either a library or a bookstore. To help Patterson with this project, bibliophiles can sign a petition, write to a U.S. senator, and share information on social media.
In April 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama met Queen Elizabeth I during their first state visit to England. At one point during their encounter, Michelle Obama put her arm around the Queen’s lower back and rubbed her shoulder, and the Queen reciprocated. It was the kind of gesture that might seem quite unremarkable when exchanged by friends, or even casual acquaintances: but, given the participants on this particular occasion, it unsurprisingly attracted a great deal more attention. The British tabloid press responded with all the measured calm for which it is so famous. The Daily Mail called their interaction “utterly astonishing,” and saw it as evidence of a “new touchy feely protocol.”
Responding to this scenario with faux amazement of this sort, however, wrongly suggests that the rules against touching a monarch differ fundamentally from those that govern the non-royal lives that the rest of us live. Rather than brewing a storm in a royal teacup in this way, we can instead use this moment to reflect upon the role that quieter, implicit, unspoken codes and rituals continue to play in our everyday interactions. The fact that the Queen cannot typically be touched doesn’t make her unlike the rest of us: it just means that the rules are clearer and less ambiguous in her case, and so too are the moments in which they are contravened.
Nowhere is the presence of such tacit codes clearer, perhaps, than in moments of greeting and parting, those ritualised exchanges that book-end so many of our daily interactions. Even something as routine as a handshake has a deeper symbolism buried within it – it is likely that the gesture first came to prominence among Quakers in the seventeenth century, as a deliberately egalitarian alternative to the doffing of hats, so it carries a political message of equality in addition to its social utility. The precise way in which a handshake is carried out – its degree of limpness or firmness, say – can tacitly set the tone for the conversation that follows.
Then there are the more intimate alternatives to the handshake – an embrace, or a peck on the cheek. It’s only at such a moment that both I, and the person with whom I am speaking, have to specify and give expression to our understanding of our relationship, and its level of intimacy. It’s a potentially fraught moment. What if I reach my hand out to be shaken at the precise moment that my interlocutor leans in for a hug? What if we exchange kisses on one cheek, but I swoop in for a kiss on the other side while the other person has already withdrawn his or her face, leaving me awkwardly to pucker up at thin air? It’s hard to say whether it is more embarrassing to be the one who has expected a greater degree of intimacy and been denied it, or the one who issues an accidental rebuff. A stiff moment of silence typically follows.
Described in this way, the most routine moments, which usually pass without incident, start to sound like a potential minefield of awkwardness and humiliation. We might hope to avoid experiencing such emotions ourselves, but the very fact that they are possible confirms just how important are these quiet, everyday exchanges. The more overt rituals that still structure touch-feely politics at the highest level are simply a magnification of the role that these rituals play in our everyday lives.
Once restrictions on touching the monarch have officially been formulated, it increases the political significance that casual acts of touch can assume. While restrictions of this sort have existed in many different cultures and eras, the point at which they were codified in English history can be pinpointed quite precisely. This occurred during the reign of Henry VIII, in the form of the Eltham Ordinances of 1526, orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. These regulations stressed that only Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber could dress the King, but insisted “that none of the said Grooms or Ushers do approach or presume…to lay hands upon his royal person.” The fact that Henry’s body couldn’t routinely be handled enabled him to invest those moments in which he did deign to touch his subjects all the more significant.
The implications of this situation were sharply recognised by Thomas More, as reported in the posthumous biography by his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper recalled the King walking with More in his garden after dinner one day, and “holding his arm about his neck.” Roper recognised this as a great sign of favour, and congratulated More, who wryly replied that “I believe he doth as singly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France … it should not fail to go.” More’s bleakly prophetic words recognised both the importance of these moments of unobtrusive intimacy, and their tendency to pale in comparison with the brutalities of realpolitik.
This moment suggests that the “new touchy-feely protocol” between the Queen and Michelle Obama was not in fact new, but continued a long-standing tendency for rulers to allow their bodies to be accessed in casual ways at carefully chosen moments. Barack Obama has shown himself to be no less aware of the symbolic force of striking moments of gentle contact, as with the 2012 photo, shown around the world, of the President allowing a five-year-old to feel his hair and confirm that it felt like the boy’s own. The real interest in such moments, however, lies less in what they tell us about the behaviour of rulers, than in the opportunity that they provide for reflection on the significance of such moments, so often fleeting and barely registered, in our own lives. The rituals that govern everyday conduct are less explicit than the Eltham Ordinances, but it is their unspoken nature that grants them both their quiet importance, and their perennial capacity for embarrassment.
Header image credit: ‘No Touching’ by Scott Akerman. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr
Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the \"Humans of New York\" (HONY) blog, has landed a deal for Humans of New York: Stories.
Stanton will appear at this year’s BookCon for a conversation event about his new book. According to the BookCon announcement, the book showcases “a whole new group of humans, complete with stories that delve deeper and surprise with greater candor.”
St. Martin’s Press will publish the follow-up to Stanton’s New York Times bestseller on October 13th. In the past, Stanton has snapped photographs featuring editorYaniv Soha, literary agent Brian DeFiore, NYPL PresidentTony Marx, Outliers authorMalcolm Gladwell, Breaking Bad actorBryan Cranston, and PresidentBarack Obama.
The Barack Obama Presidential Center will be located in the South Side of Chicago.
The New York Times reports that the organizers plan to construct a space for the president’s foundation, a museum, and a library. The opening date may take place in either 2020 or 2021. Click here to watch a video announcement featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Here’s more from the Foundation website: “The Foundation – led by close family and friends of President Obama – will be responsible for all aspects of the building, construction, design, and planning processes for the Obama Presidential Center. In the coming months, the Foundation will look to enter into an agreement with the City of Chicago to develop the Center in either Washington Park or Jackson Park. As a future neighbor and collaborator on the Center, the University of Chicago has pledged to make resources and infrastructure available to the Foundation in the near term for its planning and development work.” (via BookRiot.com)
April 2015 will go down in history as the month that the 2016 race for the White House began in earnest. Hillary Clinton’s online declaration of her presidential candidacy was the critical moment. With it America’s two major political parties have locked horns with each other. The Democrats intend to continue their control of the presidency for another four years; Republicans hope to finally make good on a conservative bumper sticker that began appearing on automobiles as early as the summer of 2009 and that read, “Had Enough Yet? Next Time Vote Republican.”
Celebrate the end of Black Music Month with this timeline highlighting over 100 years of music created and produced by influential African-Americans. Kenny Gamble, Ed Wright, and Dyana Williams developed the idea for Black Music Month back in 1979 as a way to annually show appreciate for black music icons. After lobbying, President Jimmy Carter hosted a reception to formally recognize the month.
At the heart of First Book’s mission to help children in need read, learn and succeed is the distribution of educational content. Breaking down the barriers to accessing books and other information can lift the kids we serve and their communities out of poverty and into bright futures.
When President Obama announced the ConnectED Initiative two years ago, he set an ambitious goal to provide 99 percent of American students with access to next-generation broadband internet in their classrooms and libraries by 2018. And this past April, the President followed up on this commitment with the Open eBook Initiative, a program aimed at creating a world-class digital library and making it available to students aged 4-18 from low-income families.
First Book is proud to partner with the White House to support this bold program that will bring all of America’s classrooms into the digital age. Specifically, First Book will help ensure the eBooks library reaches students in low-income families.
Many of the 180,000 schools and educational programs we serve are already working to transform their districts’ teaching and learning in the digital age. We’re excited to support Open eBooks to reinforce their efforts and take strides to ensure all children have a world of knowledge within reach.
When Obama ran for president in 2008, there’s no question that hip hop artists provided a vital soundtrack for his campaign. Energized by the possibility that Obama could become America’s first black president, deeply optimistic tracks like Will.i.am’s “It’s A New Day” and Kidz in the Hall’s “Work to Do (Obama 08)” celebrated Obama’s historic presidency.
Ballerina Misty Copeland has signed a deal with the Hachette imprint, Grand Central Life & Style. She plans to write a health and wellness book entitled Ballerina Body.
The New York Times reports that Copeland (pictured, via) will discuss diet, exercise programs, and tips. She plans to share information that will be applicable for both dancers and laymen. The publication date has been scheduled for early 2017.
Here’s more from The New Pittsburgh Courier: “Copeland, the first African-American woman to become the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, is a member of President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. Copeland said in a statement issued by her publisher that she wanted to show ‘all athletes have to take care of themselves from the inside out.’ Her previous books include the memoir Life in Motion and the picture book Firebird.” (via Elle)
Who is Barack Obama? from the popular Who Was …? series tops The Children’s Book Review’s best selling middle grade books this month. We've also added The Finisher by David Baldacci to our hand selected titles from the nationwide best selling middle grade books, as listed by The New York Times, that also features books by super-talents Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate and R.J. Palacio.
The arc of a presidency is long, but it bends towards failure. So, to paraphrase Barack Obama, seems to be the implication of recent events. Set aside our domestic travails, for which Congress bears primary responsibility, and focus on foreign policy, where the president plays a freer hand. In East Asia, China is rising and truculent, scrapping with its neighbors over territory and maritime resources. From Hanoi to Canberra, the neighbors are buttressing their military forces and clinging to Washington’s security blanket. Across Eurasia, Vladimir Putin is pushing with sly restraint to reverse the strategic setbacks of 1989-91. America’s European allies are troubled but not to the point of resolution. At just 1.65 percent of GDP, the EU’s military spending lags far behind Russia’s, at 4.5 percent of GDP. The United States, the Europeans presume, will continue to provide, much as it has done since the late 1940s.
Washington’s last and longest wars are, meanwhile, descending towards torrid denouements. Afghanistan’s fate is tenuous. Free elections are heartening, but whether the Kabul government can govern, much less survive the withdrawal of US forces scheduled for 2016 is uncertain. Iraq, from which Obama in 2011 declared us liberated, is catastrophic. The country is imploding, caught in the firestorm of Sunni insurgency that has overwhelmed the Levant. We may yet witness genocide. We may yet witness American personnel scrambling into helicopters as they evacuate Baghdad’s International Zone, a scene that will recall the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. The situations are not analogous: should ISIS militia penetrate Baghdad, the outcome will be less decisive than was North Vietnam’s 1975 conquest of South Vietnam, but for the United States the results will be no less devastating. America’s failure in Iraq would be undeniable, and all that would remain would be the allocation of blame.
We have traveled far from Grant Park, where an inspirational campaign culminated in promises of an Aquarian future. We are no longer in Oslo, where a president newly laden with a Nobel Prize spoke of rejuvenating an international order “buckling under the weight of new threats.” Obama’s charisma, intellect, and personality, all considerable, have not remade the world; instead, a president who conjured visions of a “just and lasting peace” now talks about hitting singles and doubles. There have in fairness been few errors, although Obama’s declaration that US troops will leave Afghanistan in 2016 may count as such. The problem is rather the conjuncture of setbacks, many deep-rooted, that now envelops US foreign policy. These setbacks are not Barack Obama’s fault, but deal with them he must. The irony is this: dire circumstances, above all Iraq, made Obama’s presidential campaign credible and secured his election. Dire circumstances, including Iraq, may now be overwhelming Obama’s presidency.
Cerebral and introspective, Obama may rue that the last years of presidencies are often difficult. Truman left the White House with his ratings in the gutter, while Eisenhower in his last years seemed to critics doddery and obsolete. But for Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan’s presidency might have ended in ignominy. Yet a president’s last years can be years of reinvention, even years of renewal. With the mid-terms not yet upon us, the fourth part of Obama’s day has not passed; its shape is still being defined.
Barack Obama speaks in Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Notorious as a time of setbacks, the 1970s offer examples of late-term reinventions. Henry Kissinger, serving President Ford, in 1974-76 and Jimmy Carter in 1979-80 snatched opportunity from adversity; their examples may be salutary. The mid-1970s found Kissinger’s foreign policy in a nadir: political headwinds were blowing against the East-West détente that he and Richard Nixon had built, even as Congress voted to deny the administration the tools to confront Soviet adventurism in the Third World. Transatlantic relations were at low ebb, as the industrialized countries competed to secure supplies of oil and to overcome a tightening world recession. Alarmed by the deterioration of core alliances, Kissinger in 1974-76 pivoted away from his prior fixation with the Cold War’s grand chessboard and set to work rebuilding the Western Alliance. As he did so, he pioneered international economic governance through the G-7 summits and restored the comity of the West. Kissinger even engaged with the Third World, proposing an international food bank to feed the world’s poorest and aligning the United States with black majority rule in sub-Saharan Africa. Amidst transient adversity, Kissinger laid the foundations for a post-Cold War foreign policy, and the benefits abounded in the decades that followed.
Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s inherited serious challenges, some of which he exacerbated. Soviet-American détente was already on the ropes, but Carter’s outspoken defenses of Soviet human rights added to the strain. The Shah of Iran, a longtime client, was already in trouble, but the strains on his regime intensified under Carter, who sent mixed messages. Pahlavi’s tumbling in the winter of 1978-79 and the ensuing hostage crisis threw Carter’s foreign policy off the rails. Months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Carter responded by reorienting US foreign policy towards an invigorated Cold War posture. He embargoed the USSR, escalated defense spending, rallied the West, and expanded cooperation with China. This Cold War turn was counterintuitive, being a departure from Carter’s initial bid to transcend Cold War axioms, but it confirmed his willingness to adapt to new circumstances. Carter’s anti-Soviet turn turned up the fiscal strain on the Soviet Union, helping to precipitate not only the Cold War’s re-escalation but also the Cold War’s resolution. Carter also defined for the United States a new military role in the Persian Gulf, where Washington assumed direct responsibility for the security of oil supplies. This was not what Carter intended to achieve, but he adapted, like Kissinger, to fast-shifting circumstances with creative and far-reaching initiatives.
Late term adaptations such as Kissinger’s and Carter’s may offer cues for President Obama. One lesson of presidencies past is that the frustration of grand designs can be liberating. The Nixon administration in the early 1970s sought to build a “new international structure of peace” atop a Cold War balance of power. Despite initial breakthroughs, Nixon’s design faltered, leaving Ford and Kissinger to pick up the pieces. Carter at the outset envisaged making a new “framework of international cooperation,” but his efforts at architectural renovation also came unstuck. The failures of architecture and the frustration of grand designs nonetheless opened opportunities for practical innovation, which Kissinger, Carter, and others pursued. Even George W. Bush achieved a late reinvention focused on practical multilateralism after his grand strategic bid to democratize the Middle East failed in ignominy. Whether Obama can do the same may hinge upon his willingness to forsake big ideas of the kind that he articulated when he spoke in Cairo of a “new beginning” in US relations with the Muslim world and to refocus on the tangible problems of a complex and unruly world that will submit to grand designs no more readily today than it has done in the past.
Moving forward may also require revisiting favored concepts. Embracing a concept of Cold War politics, Nixon and Kissinger prioritized détente with Soviet Union and neglected US allies. Kissinger’s efforts to rehabilitate core alliances nonetheless proved more durable than his initial efforts to stabilize the Cold War. Substituting a concept of “world order politics” for Cold War fixations, Carter set out to promote human rights and economic cooperation. He nonetheless ended up implementing the sharpest escalation in Cold War preparedness since Truman. Making effective foreign policy sometimes depends upon rethinking the concepts that guide it. Such concepts are, after all, derived from the past; they do not predict the future.
President Obama at West Point recently declared that “terrorism” is still “the most direct threat to America.” This has been the pattern of recent years; whether it is the pattern of years to come, only time will tell. New threats will also appear, as will new opportunities, but engaging them will depend upon perceiving them. Here, strategic concepts that prioritize particular kinds of challenges, such as terrorism, over other kinds of challenge, such as climate change, may be unhelpful. So too are the blanket prohibitions that axiomatic concepts often produce. Advancing US interests may very well depend upon mustering the flexibility to engage with terroristic groups, like the Taliban or Hamas, or with regimes, like Iran’s, that sponsor terrorism. Axiomatic approaches to foreign policy that reject all dialogue with terrorist organizations may narrow the field of vision. Americans, after all, did not go to China until Nixon did so.
If intellectual flexibility is a prerequisite for successful late presidential reinventions, political courage is another. While he believed that effective foreign policy depended upon domestic consensus, Kissinger strived throughout his career to insulate policy choice from the pressures of domestic politics. He persevered in defending Soviet-American détente not because it was popular but because he believed in it. Carter also put strategic purposes ahead of political expedience. Convinced that America’s dependence on foreign oil was a strategic liability, Carter decontrolled oil prices, allowing gasoline prices to rise sharply. The decision was unpopular, even mocked, but it paid strategic dividends in the mid-1980s, when falling world oil prices helped tip the Soviet Union into fiscal collapse. Obama, in contrast, appears readier to let opinion polls guide foreign policy. Withdrawing US forces from Iraq in 2011 and committing to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan during 2016 were both popular moves; their prudence remains less obvious. Still, the 22nd Amendment gives the President a real flexibility in foreign policy. Whether Obama bequeaths a strong foundation to his successor may depend on his willingness to embrace the political opportunity that he now inhabits for bold and decisive action.
Setbacks of the kind that the United States is experiencing in the present moment are not unprecedented. Americans in the 1970s fretted about the rise of Soviet power, and they recoiled as radical students stormed their embassy in Tehran. Yet policymakers devised ways out of the impasse, and they left the United States in a deceptively strong position at the decade’s end. Reinvention depended upon flexibility. Kissinger, Carter, and others understood that the United States, while the world’s leading superpower, was more the captive of its circumstances than the master of them. They were undogmatic, insofar as they turned to opportunities that had not been their priorities at the outset. They operated in the world as they found it and did not fixate upon the world as it might be. They scored singles and doubles, but they also hit the occasional home run. This is a standard that Obama has evoked; with luck, it will be a standard that he can fulfill, if he can muster the political courage to defy adverse politics and embrace the opportunities that the last 30 months of his presidency will present.