David Bromwich on Democracy and War with Syria

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There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an obviously intelligent and fairly balanced person as Obama seemed to be would escape that curse, but I don’t think so. I think of a few counter-examples: of Jimmy Carter, who has become wiser about the world in his after-years than he was as president… And I think of John Kennedy in the last year of his presidency where so much more wisdom and rueful knowledge of the limits of power, and the limits that ought to be placed on power by itself, seemed to inhabit the man. Obama’s progression has not been like theirs. It’s been from an outside, ironic and interestingly non-attached point of view to something much more oriented to the conventional routes of American power.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

With David Bromwich, close-reader of the history unfolding before our eyes, I am looking for a bright side. We are having a national conversation, after all, about war, war powers, presidential authority, intervention. It could be a democratic moment to rejoice in. President Obama has asked the people through the Congress and the Constitution to join in a freighted decision on war and peace, and the country is responding. At the same time the president indicates he is ready to override the people’s skepticism and maybe a Congressional vote for restraint. The Nobel Peace Prize president is “Pleading for War,” in one Huffington Post headline. Mr. Obama is disappointed but not yet persuaded or moved by the anti-war consensus of the G-20 leaders, the almost-unanimous European Union, the United Nations Secretary General and the Pope. Professor Bromwich wonders, not alone and not for the first time, whether Americans have ever heard from President Obama a “consistent view” of his or our international role. “There’s something unhinged about the quality of the different voices we are hearing around the White House,” Bromwich is telling me. “I think the least you can say against President Obama right now is that he does not seem to be in control.”

It turns out, in a long conversation about the immeasurably grave Syrian question before the country, that we both have John F. Kennedy on our minds approaching the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’m asking David Bromwich: how was it that the American crisis in civil rights made JFK a deeper, more serious person, and the near-catastrophe around Russian missiles in Cuba led Kennedy to the nuclear test ban treaty. How is it that the apparent collapse of the Arab Spring, the anxiety around what could be a nuclear Iran, have not seemed to penetrate and enliven the Obama circle in any comparable way.

I think Kennedy had an outgoing temperament and almost an appetite for action, for activity not just on the public stage but with public consequences. Not all of this was good by any means. But he had learned a lot, had become a wiser and a lonelier figure by 1963, partly because he saw what he was up against in the military. I like the story of John Frankenheimer, the director of “The Manchurian Candidate,” requesting from Kennedy to borrow rooms in the White House for the making of “Seven Days in May,” a good thriller about a military conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. And Kennedy let them have it. He went away for a couple of days and said to Frankenheimer: “These people,” meaning the military, “are crazy! The American people need to understand that.” Why is that unimaginable coming from Obama? It’s that there isn’t that feeling of first-hand engagement, of wanting to wrestle with problems. It is an unusual human characteristic, and as Kennedy’s example again shows, it carries with it some risky materials as well. But I think Obama is prudent and holds back, and takes the messages that are borne in on him. I think a Kennedy sort of personality, coming into office in 2009, 2010, 2011, would have seen Iran as a possibly soluble — and as the major — problem for the United States, because it impinges so much on dealings with Russia and China as well, and on the Middle East. And Iran had allied itself with the U.S. in the war on Afghanistan, and then found itself utterly rebuffed by Cheney and Bush after the help they gave in 2001, 2002 — put into the outer darkness, called part of ‘the axis of evil.’ Obama seemed to intend to change all that. But now, with the election of a new president in Iran, would have been the moment to recognize, as Kennedy did about the test ban: now I can get some action; it’s going to be hard, but I’ll do it… Now would be the moment to seek some sort of arrangement with Iran whereby they will never go to nuclear weapons, but they will be satisfied with their ability to use nuclear power domestically. This would have required enormous risk, and real courage, as it did for Kennedy to go after the test ban and push it through. Let’s never underestimate it; it’s one of the most remarkable presidential achievements of my lifetime. And it would take courage for Obama to do that, courage to go against Israel. But he would have to have initiative, too, and he would have to be pushing it himself. And that appetite doesn’t seem to be there.

I am puzzling about what seemed a long silence from Israel on this matter of striking Syria — a silence becoming less silent, David Bromwich observes. According to the New York Times over the weekend, 250 AIPAC lobbyists have been preparing to work the House of Representatives this week in favor of the Obama attacks. Professor Bromwich is quoting an Israeli diplomat in last Friday’s Times, to the effect that Israel sees in Syria a “playoff situation” in which one wants both sides to lose — the Assad government and the jihadist rebels. “Let them both bleed and hemorrhage to death — that’s the strategic thinking here,” said the Israeli diplomat.

If Israel emerges alone as the sole country in the entire Middle East that is not a devastation, and that is solid-looking and modern and Western in ways that Americans identify with, then Israel and the United States can march forward hand-in-hand toward whatever future. I think that’s the short- and middle-term so-called strategic thinking that’s guiding this. I think it’s very wrong. I want Israel to survive, and I don’t think it will survive well or happily on these terms. But that’s the calculation under Netanyahu now… So they do back limited attacks on Syria, and you can bet that behind the scenes the pressure from the Israeli government is much stronger than is leaked out to the Times. And we’re going to have a siege of it, I’m pretty sure, next week.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

So, I ask, when that irresistible force meets the immovable object of resistance at the American grassroots, what happens in the U. S. House? “For anyone who perceives what’s happening,” Professor Bromwich said, “it is one of the most astonishing confrontations between influence and democratic sentiment that has ever been.”


  • Luke Held

    Excellent show. I’ve heard many anti War with Syria voices, but David’s by far he amazingly represented every thought that I’ve had on the conflict. I’ve been unable to verbalize them as eloquently as Mr. Bromwich has done on this show.

  • sidewalker

    Am I wrong to hear in this discussion two read and thoughtful men seek rational explanations for the hawkish and even war criminal behaviour of President Obama, a former peacenik, when the answer might just be a seriously flawed character driven by the usual ego trip of such men, perhaps combined with a fear of Kennedy’s and MLK’s outcome if he were to seriously reign in the power of the empire?

  • Potter

    I think we are having a national conversation and it is something to rejoice. The President is bringing us together in an unexpected way since his off-key decision about the need to act unilaterally to save (his personal?) credibility. Many of us could only see deja view all over again and were saying “oh no you don’t!”. We hear even Michelle weighed in.

    Bromwich is right about power: irresistible to test it’s limits. Something chemical must happen in that seat. So we cannot, if we care for ourselves, look away and allow it when that power is military. It’s pretty heady to think we alone can run the world.

    Bromwich points out that Obama does not congregate with others- he does not call for gatherings to discuss . And too, his team is not exceptional–they are old thinkers. This is so disappointing because he presents himself differently.

    I have been listening to Andew Bacevich. Robert Reich was making the essential point that this has sucked all the air out of our problems at home, including those involving the NSA.

    I was very moved by an op-ed in the NYTimes “A Syrian’s Cry For Help” Yassin Al-Haj Saleh,

    Maureen Dowd had a clever one: “Who Do You Trust?”

    Got sucked into the article in the NYT on how Syria amassed these weapons with help from so many including us.

    What to do. I guess I am not one to feel the world should turn away- especially with the news, pictures and pleas in my face. But we do need to strengthen our international organization to do this.This situation would be good practice. If we acted alone, it would prevent that from happening and surely be the same UN dysfunction, everyone stepping back and criticizing us and worse. Acting alone militarily would remove any need for others, others in concert, to take responsibility and it would turn the attention on us. It’s almost as if the UN’s weakness is made worse by our leadership’s need( Obama’s) to have “credibility” via such unilateral acts; they work hand in hand. So backing off and throwing it to Congress allows for international involvement as well. How can we enforce a norm if it is not agreeable that it is a norm? How can we do this without getting into war? And how do we ( or do we, the world?) get involved in internal massacres that we know are happening? Hitler is mentioned these days.

    It’s shameful the way Israel’s leadership is apparently so unconcerned on a humanitarian level. It’s all about keeping this horror show going for fortress Israel. This is not Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, nor is it ultimately good for security. I just received an email from a relative there enjoying the beach, the spas, the malls, the weather, as though nothing is going on over the hills and walls. It’s the good life. I am with Bromwich about that too.

  • Potter

    I forgot to mention Joshua Landis who is doing quite a service with his blog SyriaComment and his appearances everywhere( it seems) with a solid view on this situation. I read JuanCole again ( InformedComment)… but I have to say I am not ready to crucify Michael Gordon on the same cross that we have already crucified him on along with Judy Miller. Nor am I ready to dismiss any of the NYTimes reporters or op-ed writers; they all contribute to the dialogue.

    I read the comments, the NYTimes picks, the readers picks…. all instructive, some very good. This is discussion.

  • sidewalker

    Potter, how do you gauge the broader US public’s disfavour, this time, for military intervention? What key factors do you attribute it to?

    • Potter

      Hi Sidewalker! I am one of those who disfavor military intervention as a knee-jerk response to a building situation before we try other things. Obama has not done that. he said “red line” apparently in a political situation and he is trying to save his face. And the public has no stomach for more war, especially with the results we get. So I think this is also about education, of this President ( who seems to be more open to that), and of the public. This is. I sense, very much about the public’s awareness now after all these years of war, with sequestration/cutback budget issues, that there is a price tag in more ways than the awesome fact of injured and dead soldiers, that we are not loved in the Middle East, have not and cannot solve their problems.

      The case for, has to be made. And if it’s an international issue, then where is the international force for this? Yeah sure we have the fire power but we have had our thrills with “sock and awe” and don’t want that.

      That said, I have to say that the threat of being a “mad dog” , as we have been precipitously in the past, regardless of consequences, seems to be a deterrent . And I notice that the threat of acting unilaterally is still on the lips of Kerry if not Obama himself. I understand that need to threaten but it is a very dangerous game..

      • sidewalker

        Thanks, Potter, for your answer. I’ve been thinking that the public outcry this time, besides the fresh memory of Iraq, has a lot to do with the economic decline of an educated and politically active middle class in the US. It is one thing to keep the poor impoverished, but to dampen or drain the American Dream at the same time publicly bailing out the banks and funding the military machine to keep helping the empire enrich the few, well this can’t sit well with those who worked hard, got a good education and can’t find decent work. Paying for another military campaign, even if sold as a wee tactical strike, must seem like a lavish spending spree, especially since the aim and the outcome is unclear and people are hurting at home.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Forrest Gump’s mama told him, using the tenor and vehicle of a simile: In life as with a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. The point might have been better illustrated with our presidents as the vehicle.

    It must have been only in my mind’s liminal precincts that I imagined a reversal of Bush’s sordid adventurism after Obama first won the presidency. What he offered instead was redemption on the installment plan: a skosh more infamy in Iraq, a longer, mordant little dawdle in Afghanistan. And recently, the president proposed to attack Syria, our country’s and the world’s opposition to such an action notwithstanding.

    Freud talked about the thanatos libido, that subordinates reason and logic to primordial instincts, like aggression and the drive to defeat and dominate others. We were pleased to attribute atavisms like these exclusively to fascists and communists and other like miscreants, while fastidiously exempting ourselves. But awareness is growing that we can work up a pretty good clinical case of war psychosis right here in Murica Agonistes.

    Or at least our presidents can. But why would this president, elected (at least tacitly) to undo the damage done by his clodhoppingly belligerent predecessor, resort to an act of war on dubious grounds? Because presidents can expect an obedient response to an order from the commander-in-chief, in contrast to the brabbling and pettifogging that frustrate their domestic initiatives? Because presidents whose initiatives have been persistently thwarted are prey to the same postlapsarian “thanatos libido” as the rest of us?

    Ultimately, though, I’m left defeated by the opacity of Mr. Obama reasoning as to the appropriate uses of the military. Professor Bromwich sees the progression of Obama’s thinking as moving from “an outside, ironic and interestingly non-attached point of view to something much more oriented to the conventional routes of American power.” This seems like sound analysis, but I discern a lot of outsider irony and detachment still in the president’s adoption of “conventional routes” to the role of imperator.

  • nother

    Hey there, so I have the luxury of analyzing your conversation a week later but I’ll say first off that Mr. Bromwich’s statement that President Obama is not “in control” as President, makes me uneasy. That type of speak is a bit too close to the “code” we hear from the Right, such as when Sen. Corker say’s Obama is “not comfortable” as Commander and Chief. I think we’ve seen that Obama is in control of his convictions, and that’s all I ask.

    It is a red line!

    Mr. Brombrich says this: As reports came out about the attacks, “he [Obama] gave the hints he shouldn’t have given if he wanted to resist thoroughly, and said there might be circumstances in which I would have to go to war in Syria.” Mr. Bromwich then says: “He said things in which a more tutored [code?], a more tactful, a more careful, President wouldn’t have said but he likes to talk, he likes to pronounce, and he got in to trouble with his remark about red lines.”

    I was just thinking today that I wish that after the game I could make all these sports talk show hosts accountable for what they said a week ago. Now I want to make Mr. Brombrich accountable. He lays out that narrative above like it’s fact but Obama has never said "he wanted to resist thoroughly." Mr. Bromwich puts those words in Obama mouth to fit his narrative that Mr. Obama regrets saying there was a “red line” because he’s not tutored, in control, or careful. The narrative I see is a pragmatic man in fluid situation who has held to his convictions and avoided war with Big Stick diplomacy.

    The one thing I didn’t hear from Mr. Bromwich is where would he himself draw a red line?

    And as far as the comparison to MLK, I’ll say this. I don’t believe he was uncomfortable about his Syria policy in his speech after the anniversary because I believe he believes he is sticking up for those children that were gassed and for Democracy, and for the future security of the free world. I don’t think the comparisons between the two leaders works, because as I heard Senator Lewis point out on the anniversary when someone asked him about Tavis Smiley’s criticisms of Obama – he said MLK “was a civil rights leader, Obama is our President.”

    Btw, Mr. Bromwich later says that "a man like Obama" who is "not the hardest working, hardest driving, hardest thinking, of Presidents, more than other people needs very good and single minded advisors around him." Hmmm, I might be too sensitvie to this stuff, but that is all hovering too close to "code" and all I can say it it makes me uncomfortable. I just wish Mr. Bromwich would be more careful because when I hear that language it makes it harder for me to absorb some of the other good points that Mr. Bromwich makes, and he certainly makes many - especially about the UN.

    And maybe the most important point is that President Obama is now in a stronger position to negotiate with Iran than he was two weeks ago, because he's spoke softly and carried a big stick.

  • Potter

    Nother, Bravo for sticking up for Obama and your criticisms of this criticism. I think Bromwich is a bit harsh and expecting Obama to be more perfect. I think, as I said, he is learning. And that is what is important. In the end it may all be good, his mistakes (or supposed ones) included, especially if he succeeds diplomatically. Already he has succeeded in bringing this to the U N.

    I am interested in Samantha Powers at the moment.

  • nother

    Potter, thank you. Bromwich is a Contrarian, and I get that. But there is no irony in his voice, and that’s a problem. He talks liberally of the arrogance of “men of power” who become isolated in their thinking, and then he pins that on Obama. But Bromwich never talks about his own power as a published public intellectual. Aparently he believes he’s not accountable in that way because he’s not responsible for actual outcomes. Hmmm, so he wants to have it both ways, he wants to be on his high horse, but he doesn’t wanna have to feed, groom, or shelter the horse. He just wants to ride it high!

    Potter, nothing anyone can say will change the Obama narrative this man has in his mind – it seems he’s a man who appreciates reason, but his own stridency supersedes reason. And btw, I believe the roots of his cynical presumptions about Obama are rooted in entrenched cultural biases. I don’t blame it all on him personally, it’s not his fault he’s an entitled white man in America from an older generation. Might be the same for his strident thoughts on Israel too, I don’t know. Ahh, But that’s just my opinion, I’ll shut up now.

    And I totally agree about Powers!

    • Potter

      Nother. rarely do we have a conversation- so it’s great! I think I do not have so much animus towards Bromwich. I still enjoy how well he articulates my own criticisms of Obama who can be infuriating at times. But you are right that Bromwich does not enjoy the same scrutiny as Obama.