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Obama Brings His Theology to the Middle East

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If individuals are bound to be nasty and brutish to each other, it’s worse in relations among nations, Niebuhr argued. Never expect anything from a nation except greed and lust for power. Even on the rare occasion that a nation pursues a relatively good aim, it’s bound to use evil means. And that includes Niebuhr’s homeland, the good old US of A.

It pained him to see his theology become the dominant narrative of cold war America with one huge twist: U.S. presidents and policymakers exempted America from the universal stain of sin — at least in public, where they insisted that America would, and could, do no wrong.

In private, the cold warriors acted upon (and occasionally admitted to each other) the principle that Niebuhr said all nations will inevitably use: accepting evil means to pursue even the best goals. The 21st century warriors against terrorism, Democrats as well as Republicans, have followed the same Niebuhrian script. Now Obama has brought it to the Middle East.

In fact Americans have always practiced such hypocrisy, Niebuhr argued, although they generally denied it and claimed that their nation was as pure as Eden. That’s The Irony of American History (as he titled his other most famous book).

Obama surely understand this irony very well. He never quite comes out and admits that he is embracing evil for the sake of a greater good. But he doesn’t boast of America’s perfect purity in the way the early cold warriors, or his predecessor George W. Bush, did.

Obama addresses almost every issue in the Niebuhrian way he spoke of the settlements: “The politics there are complex … It’s not going to be solved overnight,” because there is no absolute good or evil; we always deal in shades of gray; we all make compromises; sooner or later, we all become hypocrites.

But I wonder whether Obama ever stops to think about the other irony of American history, since Niebuhr became a guiding light of its foreign policy.

When he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr thought he was showing a better path toward hope and change than the idealistic Christian liberalism of the Progressive era. You’ve got to get your hands dirty in the political process if you want to improve the world: That was the essence of the myth that he intended to create.

History played a trick on him, though — just as his own theory predicted. The main message that American readers and leaders took from his book is that the world is a dangerous place; everyone is out to get us; self-protection is the name of the international game; so do evil unto others before they do it unto you.

This is the foundation of what I call the American mythology of homeland insecurity. It’s the narrative that dominates U.S. foreign policy — and Israeli foreign policy too, though the Zionists didn’t need Niebuhr to teach them. They developed their own myth of insecurity before he ever wrote a word.

The same narrative dominated Obama’s rhetoric in Israel. He wrapped his calls for peace in endless recitation of the supposed dangers that Israel faces, dangers that are largely imaginary. He may have meant it as a pragmatic move, to convince Israeli Jews that he really does care about their fate.

But irony always wins in the end, Niebuhr taught. So Obama’s powerful reinforcement of Israel’s insecurity is likely, in the end, to undermine his call for Israel to compromise and take risks for peace. As long as the Israeli Jews, and their supporters here in the U.S. (mostly gentile conservatives), believe that they are as endangered as Obama says, they are not likely to take any risks at all. They are more likely to do evil to others, because their fearful imaginings tell them that others are about to do evil to them.

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