Together Again?: Reinhold Niebuhr and Barack Obama

                                                                                                         Photo by George Conklin

by James M. Wall

In Feburary, 1991, a column I wrote for the Christian Century, a magazine which I then edited, was entitled, Ideals and Exploitation in the Desert Sands. I wrote the column in the first days of “victory” in the first Gulf War.  At the time, of course, I assumed that Saddam Hussein would soon be deposed as the Iraqi leader. As it turned out, it took a younger Bush more than a decade longer to accomplish this assignment. 

The insights I sought to share at the time emerged from my reading of the noted Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I concluded the column with observations I believe remain valid today.

Here are the concluding paragraphs of that 1991 column. To read the entire column click on ideals-and-exploitation.

Only an ironic view of history can make sense of a policy that encourages a dictator right up to the point at which he crosses one border too many. And only an irony of history can appreciate the tinny sound of our rationale for fighting this war on behalf of Kuwait, when it is obvious that if Kuwait’s major export were brussels sprouts our reaction would have been far less vigorous.

When this war finally ends, presumably with an allied victory, we will once again face choices. We will confront an Arab region which will have suffered another humiliating defeat. Our Arab allies will be burdened with hav ing enlisted Western assistance in overcoming Saddam Hussein, which in itself will be a form of humiliation. And, of course, we will have caused considerable damage and suffering in Iraq. 

Whatever happens to Hussein himself, his Islamic card will remain. Gilles Kepel, writing in Le Monde before the war began, concluded that “the political language of Islam had achieved a pregnant ideological weight [in the region] vastly more considerable than it had 10 years ago” (quoted by Doug Ireland in the Village Voice, January 22). The “re-Islamization” of the region has involved not only the strictest adherence to the norms of Islam in every aspect of daily life, but also a critique of existing political power.

This means, wrote Kepel, that another Hussein will “surge forth from the Middle East . . . to play the same card and preach the jihad.” To avoid this, he says, the West “must propose a way out of the weightiest problems that perpetuate such insupportable tensions in that part of the world. This way out must include a form of autonomy for the Palestinians, and … economic development in the region, on the scale of the Marshall Plan.” (emphasis added).

When the war ends, we can continue to view the region through a narrow lens of self-interest, or we can listen to the cries in the region demanding change. The only good that could come from this war will be a chance for the West to recognize how self-defeating its previous policies have been. Religious fervor, linked to Arab pride, will not be bombed into submission, and the elimination of one ruler will not alter that fervor.

In April, 2008, the University of Chicago Press issued a new edition of Reinhold Neibuhr’s, The Irony of American HistoryAndrew J. Bacevich, wrote in his introduction to the new edition: “Irony provides the master key to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin American statecraft. . . . [This book by Neibuhr] is the most important book ever written on US foreign policy.” Andrew J. Bacevich is also the author of The Limits of Power, and was recently featured on Bill Moyers’ Journal. (For more on Niebuhr see Richard Fox’ Niebuhr biography)

In introducing the new edition of Irony to its readers, the University of Chicago Press offered this endorsement from Barack Obama, the new Democratic nominee for president: 

I take away [from the works of Reinhold Niebuhr] 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. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”

In my 1991 Christian Century column, I referred to some of the key terms in Niebuhr’s writing on history, citing insights from Richard Fox:

“To use Niebuhr’s categories, it would be nothing less than ‘pathetic’ if we concluded that we have reached this juncture in our national life through no fault of our own.  And it would be “tragic” if we had to acknowledge that we have made all the decisions that put us here. 

Describing Niebuhr’s understanding of the ‘irony of history,’ Richard Fox reminds us that ’the unexpected disappointments and dilemmas of American life [are] the result not of fully conscious choice, but of partly unconscious stumbling”. Fox also points out that there is hope in viewing our history ironically.  If we grasp the past as ‘ironic’ rather than as ‘pathetic’ or ‘tragic.’, it is possible that we can be led to a ‘renewed sense of responsibility for [our] future.”

Maybe not this week, but maybe at some point during next week’s Republican convention, Obama might like to reread some of his favorite sections from The Irony of American History.  It is high time we had a president with a “renewed sense of responsibility for [our] future”.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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