The Conservative Side of Barack Obama

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Alan Luxenberg is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Wachman Center and author of “Radical Islam,” a volume for middle and high school students.

Amid all the acrimony that has accompanied the debate over President Obama’s policies, the conservative side of Barack Obama has failed to receive the attention it deserves, especially among conservatives.

Most obvious has been his expressed determination to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliated movements (AQAM), most visible in the surge he ordered for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  In addition, Obama vastly increased the use of drones to target militants in Pakistan, and he has increased secretive operations to disrupt AQAM in places such as Yemen and Somalia.  

Moreover, in the aftermath of the McChrystal controversy, Obama reaffirmed existing policy in Afghanistan, not least by choosing General Petraeus as McChrystal’s successor—that same Petraeus that President Bush designated to carry out the surge in Iraq and who at the time was reviled by many of Obama’s supporters.

While conservatives fail to credit Obama for his conservative positions, not all liberals are willing to ignore Obama’s conservative side.  The liberal magazine American Prospect, for example, faults Obama for his “decision to embrace the core framework of the Bush Administration’s ‘war on terror’.” 

It is worth recalling the speech Obama gave upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009.  Ironically, on the occasion of receiving a prize for peace, he delivered an address designed to explain why war is justified in the face of evil.  He cited two such instances of evil that required war in response:  the case of Hitler and the case of Al Qaeda.  Moreover, despite his apologies on other occasions for American misbehavior overseas, in this speech he praised as essential the role the United States played in leading the world after World War II in “constructing an architecture to keep the peace.”  Because of the United States, he said, “billions have been lifted from poverty.”  Because of the United States, the rule of law has been advanced. 

“Whatever mistakes we have made,” he argued, the U.S. has helped “underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”  This was a speech that conservatives could only praise—and many did, even if they considered it unrepresentative of the foreign policy of the Obama administration.

When a year ago I wrote a book for students on the meaning of 9/11, I pondered how I could best refute the notion that students could easily access on the Internet to the effect that 9/11 was an “inside job” perpetrated by Dick Cheney or others in the U.S. government.  I found my answer in a statement made by President Obama in his Cairo address of June 2009, designed to place on a new footing U.S. relations with Muslims around the world.  What he told the world’s Muslims—and the world—was this:

I’m aware that there’s still some who would question or even justify the events of 9/11.  But let us be clear. Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people that day. . . . They have affiliates in many countries and they are trying to expand their reach.  These are not opinions to be debated; they are facts to be dealt with.

More recently, in an address at West Point in May 2010, he sounded the themes of Duty, Honor, Country, explaining that the Declaration of Independence has “bound us together” as one people.  He took some time to recognize and applaud the new officers’ commitment to country in time of war, arguing that the war in Afghanistan was as important today as it was in the days immediately following 9/11.  He even talked about what success would look like in Iraq in terms that might just as well have been articulated by George W. Bush.

The ironic thing is that if a Republican had been elected in 2008 and carried out exactly the policy that Obama is executing in Afghanistan, opposition to the war would most likely have spiked.  But with Obama in command, the opposition has been largely disarmed and many of those who might have been staunch critics of U.S. policy have instead been drawn into the mainstream.  Indeed, I cannot imagine anyone who is better positioned to carry out this Afghan policy than Barack Obama.

Some of these stances by President Obama seem not to correspond to those of Candidate Obama, and certainly not to the company he kept prior to the election campaign.  But then perhaps it is his role as commander-in-chief with all of its awesome responsibilities that moved him closer to the center. 

Although there are many aspects of the Obama foreign policy that disturb conservatives, including this conservative, what I like about President Obama is that, for many people, he has made patriotism “cool.”  And that’s not trivial.

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Richard F. Mehlinger - 7/24/2010

Neoconservatism may once have had liberal roots, but it's willingness to trample domestic civil liberties and its support of the unitary executive suggests that it has wandered rather far from those. That said I do not believe it is accurate to describe it as truly conservative, either.

Alan H. Luxenberg - 7/20/2010

What tells you Luxenberg does not have family members in the trenches?

Alan H. Luxenberg - 7/20/2010

You say: "Something tells me Luxenberg does not have a family member in the trenches?" What exactly tells you that?

Nat Bates - 7/14/2010

This author is lauding President Obama for helping to pass neo-conservative memes along to the next generation. I do not think President Obama is a neo-conservative since he seems more like a realist with a slight left bent. However, I acknowledge the point that he has continued many of the previous Administration's policies.

My response best begins with my expounding on the term "meme." Memes are essentially social genes, albeit without a precise scientific definition. "Meme" is more of a social term used by people who are mostly not social scientists but rather computer scientists who fancy themselves historians. However, I think that "meme" can be an apt term to describe an idea or set of ideas that define the culture and are passed down through the generations. Mutations may enter in, but successful mutations strengthen the memes.

Neo-conservatism is a virus injected in to patriotism which had the possibility of killing patriotism, which is almost did in the form of destroying the Constitution under George W. Bush (aka "President George III). However, instead, it acted as a successful virus and fused with the social DNA of its host. Neo-conservatism was willing to adapt in order to survive, by dropping its elitist discourse and embracing the idea of "spreading freedom." However dishonest this claim was, it was never really challenged successfully in the mainstream discourse.

Most of us now see the Founders through the eyes of Neo-conservatism. Alternative new left forms of patriotism never caught on with middle America because the latter, even though disaffected with the limitations on democracy by corporations and elites, could not identify with the radicals on many cultural fronts. The arrogance of secular liberals truly was (and is) an affront to the majority of this country. Yet, the arrogance of the bankers and the military-industrial complex seems to be unchallenged precisely because it has adapted forms of religion and patriotism to its own ends, mostly playing fast and loose with both the Bible and the Constitution. Emotion is emphasized over substance, and that tends to work well with Americans.

So it is that American patriotism has now fused with Neo-conservatism. Our Constitution, the DNA of the nation, has been altered. Not in word, mind you, but in interpretation. Most people assume that the Bill of Rights applies only to citizens. Most assume that the President has vast powers under Article II that would have astounded even Hamilton.

Traditional Republicans who uphold minimalist notions of government are alarmed (Ron Paul opposed Bush, mind you), while Democrats are disgusted. But, I would argue that both are missing the point. Neo-conservatism emerged from the same source as radical Islam, namely the opposition to Soviet Communism by entities created by the CIA that in turn developed lives of their own. "Blowback" is the term often used. Islamic radicalism is a virus that has fused with Islam in the minds of so many Muslim youth, while Neo-conservatism has succeeded in defining American Exceptionalism while FDR liberalism was unable to hold its grip on Exceptionalism and what it meant. The battle of language has been won, and the forces opposed to Neoconservatism are often too arrogant to really see that they lost due to their inability to see what was happening.

The virus was successful. Now, at this point, the virus has fused with the host. History can be manufactured, and it always has. My sense is that the best we can do is to point out that militarism is a threat to liberty, and that liberty is more important than blind symbolism. Showing that a reptilian brain response to the world threatens one's own liberty is the best way to proceed. The problem with civil libertarians is that they have been painted as being defenders of criminals and terrorists, and have gone themselves to often embrace them. This falls right in to the hands of the Neo-conservatives. Being defenders of ordinary blokes would have been a better strategy, but one that would mean a challenging of a lot of their own elitist inclinations.

A successful anti-war position is one that is premised on the idea that a NON-militarist society best defends freedom and not a militarist society. This would be a successful undoing of Neo-con memes. It strikes them at their root. I am not for quitting in Afghanistan, mind you, because I see how the Soviet Union fell after that. I am for being smart about getting involved in other theatres of war, and I am in favor of gradually withdrawing from NATO, GATT, the UN, and all entangling alliances. I would follow the real, actual words of George Washington and be friends with all, allies with none. Or, better yes, allies with all in creating a world of peace and freedom without terrorism, ecological pollution, or war. Individuals would bear arms in my ideal free world, while governments would slowly begin a process of disarming.

Utopia? Yes. But, if it fused with the social DNA it would be a counter-balance to Neo-conservatism. I would not have it triumph completely, since that would be arrogance, but at least be in the public mind.

james joseph butler - 7/13/2010

Luxenberg calls himself a "conservative" while applauding the same loopy self-destructive foreign policy, that Obama and that other guy, lacking O's IQ and passport stamps, embrace. Why? Because it feels good. We're the good guys they're the bad guys and something tells me Luxenberg doesn't have any family members in the trenches.

The quintessence of labeling inanity is found daily in the ad pages of the Wash Post where America's congressional military industrial matrix slips into its Captain America unitard to conduct today's powerP, we need new machines for our "warriors" defending "our way of life". This is where Luxenberg's conservatism beds down with pork and jobs and incumbents and freedom and democracy, those heroes, $$$, Obama, W, and Democrats. The war gravy train. Very conservative.

And as long as I'm flogging warning labels, having borrowed from Ike; GW's parting words from his Farewell Address:"Why entangle our prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interests, humor or caprice?" Substitute Middle Eastern for European and ask why the war on terror exists. Because we chose sides based on venal hoo hah. Nasser could've been our ally. Mossadeq the same. We could "friend" virtually anyone in the Middle East today short of Bin laden if we chose to follow our best interests, not to mention a truly idealistic freedom and democracy agenda. We don't and won't, even with our Nobel Peace Prize Prez, because of precedents, profits, and pals, special pals.

Luxenberg is right. If conservatism means an allegiance to the status quo without a correlate to, "Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity and interest,"-G.W.'s farewell,Obama is doing a great, conservative, job.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/12/2010

Mr. Luxenberg is taking a grossly partisan shot when he says that "what I like about President Obama is that, for many people, he has made patriotism “cool.”"

Obama is a patriotic moderate, fine. Impugning the patriotism of cool people, though, is not fine.

Javier Ramirez - 7/12/2010

The idea that Obama has a conservative streak because he is carrying out Bush/Cheny policies is way off. Liberals have always had an interventionist side to them throughout the 20th century. Obama is, pure and simple, a neconservative whose origins as an ideology are rooted comfortably and strongly in the left not the right. Obama NEVER presented himself as the peace candidate. The writer of this piece feels he is giving us breaking news.

Obama is a complete liberal and his war policies are reflection of it. Its not that he has a conservative side, its that Bush/Cheney had a liberal one.