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Bromide Obama’s Greatest Speech

David Brooks asserted yesterday in “Obama’s Christian Realism” that Barack Obama’s Oslo speech was “the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.”

Since Obama’s presidency is only 11 months old, and the Obama oeuvre is not large, this is actually faint praise. We all remember the great “Let Me Be Clear” speech at AIPAC, the emphatic “I Can No More Disown” Reverend Wright speech, the humble “Citizens of the World” address in Berlin, the stately “Greek Column” oration in Denver, the compelling “Unclench Your Fist” Inaugural, and the “Just Till July 2011” clarion call at West Point. There are really only about 10 lifetime speeches to be evaluated in terms of comparative profundity.

Brooks concludes that Obama’s Oslo speech is making his “doctrine” clear: a theological commitment to combat evil while avoiding righteousness. He quotes Obama’s 2007 remark on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s impact: “I take away 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.”

Brooks originally reported that remark in a 2007 column entitled “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” in which he questioned whether Obama had “thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own – a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts.” Back then, Brooks was not certain he had:

When you ask about ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he talks grandly about marshaling a global alliance. But when you ask specifically if an Iranian bomb would be deterrable, he’s says yes: ”I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.”

In other words, he has a tendency to go big and offer himself up as Bromide Obama, filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect. Then, in a blink, he can go small and concrete, and sound more like a community organizer than George F. Kennan.

It’s nice that in his Oslo speech, Obama confirmed that evil “does exist in the world” and that he “cannot be guided by [Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Gandhi’s] examples alone.” It is good that he insists that Iran and North Korea not “game the system” and that sanctions must “exact a real price.”

But the real question about Obama’s “doctrine” is whether — after Iran declines to unclench its fist and sanctions fail (they have yet to succeed with Cuba or North Korea, and Saddam Hussein turned a profit from the “crippling” ones on him) — his Niebuhrian instincts call for any other option. Iran is likely to react to diplomacy in one fashion if it thinks the answer is yes, and another if it thinks the answer is no.

So far, Iran is acting as if it has read Brooks’s 2007 column and knows the answer. It appears untroubled by the most profound speech of Obama’s life.



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