David Bromwich on Democracy and War with Syria

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.”

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