Published February 13, 2008
The other week, Barack Obama came up with what he doubtless saw as a snappy comeback in answer to Hillary Clinton's oft-repeated boast that she would have the experience to be ready to govern “on Day One” by saying that “it is important to be right on Day One.” I hold no brief for either of these candidates, but this, clearly, is exactly wrong, and a reinforcement of Mrs. Clinton's attempts to portray Mr. Obama as callow and inexperienced rather than an answer to them. For being “right” is no more an option for a president than it is for anyone else. Doubtless he will be right sometimes, but he will also be wrong a lot of the time. That is not something he can promise not to be without appearing either to be a fool himself or to be fooling the electorate. It is tantamount to a promise not to make mistakes. How can we take a man seriously as a potential president who would make such an unwise — indeed, mistaken — promise?
But Mr. Obama is surely aware that his claim to electoral advantage on the grounds of being right is an appeal to a particular constituency that is sure to be influential in the selection of the Democratic nominee — and in the enthusiasm with which he (or she) is supported and campaigned for in the November general election. This is the MoveOn constituency, the “Not in Our Name” crowd. Above all it is those with the bumper stickers about a village somewhere in Texas which has mislaid its idiot. For such people — and, to a disturbing extent these days, the Democratic Party as a whole — pride of intellect is politically debilitating. They have no political philosophy or program apart from not being so stupid as they are now so heavily invested in representing George W. Bush as being. Among such people, it must seem like a real option to run on a platform of being so smart that you won't ever have to do anything hard or scary — like, say, go to war.
Mrs. Clinton would actually have her own claim to stake on this constituency, if she were not, for some reason, a little shy of making it. It is that her own “experience” of executive power, such as it is, came from being part of the Clinton administration that mostly conducted its national security business on the same principle: whatever you do, don't risk being wrong. That administration's failure to offer any but the feeblest and most ineffectual military response to any of a series of provocations from the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, its swiftness to withdraw American forces from Somalia when American soldiers were killed there and its limitation of American and NATO intervention in the Balkans to aerial bombardment that cost not a single American life was presumably just the sort of foreign policy that Mr. Obama's emphasis on being “right” would approve of. Yet, oddly, he does not cite the Bill Clinton record of not making mistakes — at least mistakes with fatal consequences for American servicemen — as a model for his administration either.
Of course, the recent successes attributable to the “surge” of American forces in Iraq make it just a little more difficult to make out the Bush administration's audacity — to use an Obama-esque word — in invading Iraq to be quite so indubitably wrong. But say that it was. Say that the hard-line leftists, the Michael Moore style Bush-haters are right. He was wrong. He was woefully wrong in undertaking the invasion of Iraq instead of going after Osama bin Laden. The fact means less than nothing now. Osama bin Laden is carrying on his anti-American jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan and, now, Pakistan just as if the President had been right! Right or wrong, if we mean to fight al Qaeda — as opposed to being nice to them in the hope that they'll start being nice to us, which is the view of the more extreme, pacifist wing of the anti-Bush coalition — these are the places where we must fight it. Who was right and who was wrong about Iraq in 2003 is irrelevant now — unless, of course, you are like Barack Obama and willing to promise your hopeful supporters that you will never be wrong.
That he has not been laughed off the national stage for such foolish presumption is one measure of the eagerness in his party to welcome a political savior, a fantasy figure and superhero who can put everything right. My impression is that this eagerness, this willingness to see a one-term senator from Illinois as an object of veneration, as if he had accomplished some great deed instead of just promising “change,” exists not just on the media fringe but among people who would once have scorned such childishness. Oh how certain sorts of Democrats want to believe in their infallible superman! It's the closet utopian in them who desperately need to believe that if you're smart enough — as, in effect, Barack Obama is promising them he will be — they won't have to fight anybody! They believe, as utopians of all descriptions have always believed, that peace and prosperity will come at the bidding of the smart. That's why they have to denigrate the President's intelligence at the same time that they are willing naively to believe in the omnicompetence of Senator Obama's.
In a long and persuasive article in the current Claremont Review of Books, Victor Davis Hanson shows that America has never gone to war without making mistakes in numbers, gravity and frequency to rival anything we have seen in Iraq. Probably no other nation ever has either. But the technocratic mentality is scandalized by error and, instead of seeking to correct it, wallows in recriminations and second-guessing. As Professor Davis Hanson says, “in postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, while the notion of victory is an orphan.” Why is this? He has a number of helpful explanations, including the fact that “an affluent, leisured society has adopted a therapeutic and managerial rather than tragic view of human experience — as if war should be controllable through proper counseling or a sound business plan.” I would just add that we shouldn't forget the utopian temperament to which Senator Obama appeals — and to which it is unbearable to think that it is just not possible to be so smart, so much in control, that disastrous error is precluded.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator's movie and culture critic. His new book, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is being published this month by Encounter Books.