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What Would Bismarck Do?

On the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review is “Otto von Bismarck, Master Statesman,” Henry Kissinger’s review of a new Bismarck biography. Kissinger quotes one of Bismarck’s sayings about war: “Woe to the statesman whose arguments for entering a war are not as convincing at its end as they were at the beginning.”

In his Friday column on Barack Obama, David Brooks wrote that he opposes the administration’s publicly-articulated Libyan policy (the days-not-weeks humanitarian mission with an ambiguous ultimate objective), but supports what he calls the unstated actual policy (a “Squeeze and See” strategy of regime change formulated by a “sensitive, idealistic” commander-in-chief who can also “think practically”):

It is tiresome to harp on this sort of thing, but this is an intervention done in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. It is motivated by a noble sentiment, to combat evil, but it is being done without self-righteousness and with a prudent awareness of the limits and the ironies of history.

Brooks is right: it is tiresome. Perhaps we are blessed to have a hugely self-regarding president whose public words are not a reliable guide to his actual policies – continually dragged into last-minute decisions while contemplating the limits and ironies of history. But perhaps we should withhold judgment until we see how well the Niebuhrian spirit combats evil in the shape of Iran.

Two days before Brooks’s column appeared, the administration announced unserious Iran sanctions that reporters saw through immediately and that clearly upset knowledgeable senators. Such sanctions are not likely what Niebuhr (much less Bismarck) would have done.



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