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Lessons for Obama

I confess to reading people on the right. Sometimes with utter dismay. Oftentimes with respect. Among the people I read regularly is Peter Wehner who actually writes for Commentary's website, Contentious, with other conservative intellectuals. And very contentious they are. Wehner actually was one of George Bush's speechwriters. Since I thought some of Bush's speeches quite alright--and even better--this fact is not a disqualifier.

Indeed, Wehner is one smart guy ... and a stylish writer besides. What's more, he knows his history. Today, he's dug into the history of the Cold War, an era not so strategically remote from our own. Except that the enemy is militarily far weaker than we are but stronger in the fact that it hides behind civilians--committed to it and utterly indifferent to it--which, given our scruples, provides enormous advantages to our foe.

This is the circumstance that permits the Goldstone panel, installed by the oh, so impartial Human Rights Council, to accuse Israel of war crimes. Moreover, it is the setting for charging the United States and NATO in Afghanistan also with war crimes.

What Wehner has done is to go back to Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's ultra-realist secretary of state. Acheson's wisdom is absolutely shocking in that it is so remote from the crowd around Barack Obama. Now, it is true that this administration's policies are almost altogether indifferent to human rights and liberal ideals internationally. But that does not at all make it realist or realistic. It is simply afraid.

Fear gives no sound guidance to policy makers, and neither does guilt, especially misplaced guilt. Acheson's memoir, Present at the Creation, ahould be read as a vindication of Harry Truman. But it may also me read as a critique of Presidemt Obama. Acheson was a protege of Felix Frankfurter and a law clerk to Justice Louis Brandeis. He roomed with Cole Porter at the Harvard Law School.

"Acheson's Lessons for Obama," by Peter Wehner:   

Today is the first of at least five meetings between President Obama and his national-security team to re-examine the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The president is certainly entitled to engage in intensive discussions on a matter of this magnitude—though it should be said that (a) it’s not as if the issues haven’t been known for quite some time now, and that (b) according to General Stanley McChrystal, who is leading our effort in Afghanistan, there is a particular urgency to making a decision. If McChrystal doesn’t get the additional troops he needs within the next year, his mission will “likely result in failure.” So time is of the essence.

As President Obama reassesses his commitment to the Afghanistan war, he might bear in mind the words of Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state, who wrote this in his extraordinary memoir Present at the Creation:

No one can decide and act who is beset by second thoughts, self-doubt, and that most enfeebling of emotions, regret. With the President a decision made was done with and he went on to another. He learned from mistakes (though he seldom admitted them), and did not waste time bemoaning them. . . . The capacity for decision, however, does not produce, of itself, wise decisions. For that a President needs a better eye and more intuition and coordination than the best batters in the major leagues. If his score is not far better than theirs, he will be rated a failure. But the metaphor is inadequate; it leaves out the necessary creativity. A President is not merely coping with the deliveries of others. He is called upon to influence and move to some degree his own country and the world around it to a purpose that he envisions.

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