David Bromwich on Obama: Looking at Words Closely

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Bromwich (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3).

It’s a measure of the change in the discourse that David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English who used to write op-ed in the New York Times, now keeps a sort of Times Watch in the Huffington Post, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. “I don’t have a particular grievance, or have it in for the Times,” Professor Bromwich says to me in conversation, “but they are an important mainstream paper, and the way they bent towards the war in Iraq, I think, was all-important in legitimating that war. So they bear watching, and when no one else is minding that watch, I do it.” He was the only writer I saw who broke through the “de mortuis” sentimentalism around the Times’ late language meister William Safire to nail the propagandist and congenital war-monger: “the true Safire touch — clever, punchy, alliterative, demagogic.” In a more consequential “close reading” of the Times through five days of late October, Bromwich wrote: “the conclusion draws itself. The New York Times wants a large escalation in Afghanistan.”

David Bromwich seems to me better yet at Obama-watching than at press criticism. He can write with penetration of Barack Obama as an American almost-literary invention, and he can make you feel you’re reading Nabokov on Don Quixote or Harold Bloom on Hamlet. In our gab, Bromwich’s essentially sympathetic but distressed view is that Obama “is a capitive of the inertia of the use of American power that he inherits.” To my taste, Bromwich does what the magisterial columnists of old like James Reston and Walter Lippman (the people I wanted to be when I grew up) used to do: pull the threads of news and impression and gossip and deep reading into a “mood of Washington” and some sense of where we’re going. Sitting in New Haven, Bromwich comes at it with the training primarily of the literary man, a biographer of the critic William Hazlitt and prolific interpreter of Rousseau, Burke, Lincoln and Mill. He adopted the old liberal prejudices when they were uncontested — in favor of peace, against torture; for civil liberties without cavil; for the republican virtues and constitutional standards. Bromwich’s finished work has an often chilling clarity and eloquence I find nowhere else these days:

Afghanistan is the largest and the most difficult crisis Obama confronts away from home. And here the trap was fashioned largely by himself. He said, all through the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one. It was ‘a war of necessity’, he said this summer. And he has implied that he would accept his generals’ definition of the proper scale of such a war. Now it appears that Afghanistan is being lost, indeed that it cannot be controlled with fewer than half a million troops on the ground for a decade or more. The generals are for adding troops, as in Vietnam, in increments of tens of thousands. Their current request was leaked to Bob Woodward, who published it in the Washington Post on 21 September, after Obama asked that it be kept from the public for a longer interval while he deliberated. The leak was an act of military politics if not insubordination; its aim was to show the president the cost of resisting the generals.

The political establishment has lined up on their side: the addition of troops is said to be the most telling way Obama can show resoluteness abroad. This verdict of the Wall Street Journal, the Post and (with more circumspection) the New York Times was taken up by John McCain and Condoleezza Rice. If Obama declined at last to oppose Netanyahu on the settlement freeze, he will be far more wary of opposing General Petraeus, the commander of Centcom. Obama is sufficiently humane and sufficiently undeceived to take no pleasure in sending soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. He will have to convince himself that, in some way still to be defined, the mission is urgent after all. Afghanistan will become a necessary war even if we do not know what marks the necessity. Robert Dole, an elder of the Republican Party, has said he would like to see Petraeus as the Republican candidate in 2012. Better to keep him in the field (this must be at least one of Obama’s thoughts) than to have him to run against.

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.

David Bromwich, “Obama’s Delusion,” in the London Review of Books, 22 October 2009. Read it all here.

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  • jack

    I’m an admirer of David Bromwich, and delighted by this show.

    I now read much of the NYT as a species of insidious pathology. It is often complicit in the mystifications it pretends to report (thank you, Judith Miller). It diseminates them as “straight” journalism, then applies its assumed authority to create the public mood necessary to act on them (thank you David Brooks, Thomas Friedman et al). There’s a passage in Beckett where one of his bums stuffs his trousers with copies of the TLS; I’d do the same apropos the NYT if only the computer would fit.

    Bromwich’s discussion of Lawrence Wright’s use in the New Yorker of the phrase “anger and confusion” to describe the feeling of the Palestinians after the Israeli assault especially acute. Surely the appropriate word was “outrage.” Maybe even “sadness,” thrown in for good measure. But that would have been to suggest the Palestinians had grounds for grievance, and a humanity that granted them that right. It’s a view of that specific human condition as abstract and misbegotten as the nouns it deploys. A brief adventure in empathy in lieu of cliché might have led him to wonder what he would have felt in similar circumstances. “Anger and confusion”? Not me, or not just.

    I haven’t read Bromwich’s essay about euphemism, but “contractor” for mercenary an example I find abhorrent. A contractor builds, a mercenary kills. What slime-devil contrived to confuse the two?

    Another thing I find disturbing in politico-journo speak is the infantilizing, impolite, and often incorrect use of “guys,” as when the White House press secretary refers to the assembled press corpse as “guys,” turning what should be a stricter, more adversarial relationship (given that honesty is generally out of the question) into the absurd spectacle it usally is. I knew the gig was up when GWB simply cancelled the usual schedule of press conferences and no one really seemed to mind. Then there was Ari Fleisher warning a reporter to watch what he said, to similar effect. And there was GWB admonishing a reporter, who quickly fell in line, for not addressing him as “President.” “Who do you think you’re speaking to,” he said.

    That’s all she wrote.

  • jack

    Apropos the General’s war, this from someone I’ve long hoped Chris would interview:


  • brahmsky

    Excellent show, fascinating stuff. Speaking of Gaza–“anger and confusion” and so on–Moshe Halbertal’s article, in the current issue of NEW REPUBLIC, Nov. 18, 2009, is illuminating of the situation there, “The Goldstone Illusion: What the U.N. Report Gets Wrong About Gaza.”

  • This conversation took me back to the idea that language inescapably political. I guess it is a testament to the power of neoliberal thinking over the last few decades and the smoothing over (erasure) of politics that this idea returns as a such a revelation. Some other reminders from other prophets that news sources cant hide behind the conceit that they are being ‘objective’ when they transmit misinformation and propaganda (and also that there is an insidious side to their (and our) feigned ignorance)… We’re becoming zombies unable to make ethical decisions about this state of perpetual war and the continuation of all sorts of violence:

    The beginning of the conversation, on the way reports about the destruction of Gaza use all sorts of language games to hide the agency and thus responsibility of israeli authorities, reminded me of Roland Barthes’ quote in ‘African Grammar’ describing the way that colonization was erased in earlier colonial official speak:

    “DECIREMENT/LACERATION (cruel, painful) – This term helps accredit the notion of History’s irresponsibility. The state of war is masked under the noble garment of tragedy, as if the conflict were essentially Evil, and not a (remediable) evil. Colonization evaporates, engulfed in the halo of an impotent lament, which recognizes the misfortune in order to establish it only the more successfully.”

    Among the terrifying euphemisms D.B didn’t mention is “smart power,” the key principle of Clinton’s foreign policy, which James Der Derian unmasks in his genealogy of the terrifying oxymoron, ‘Virtuous War’, maybe the most extreme (and accepted) euphemism around.

    What’s at stake, as Judith Butler shows us in Frames of War, is our ability to FEEL anything about the violence we see all around us. But Baudrillard best captures this zombification of politics we now face much earlier in ‘America’ written in 1986:

    “The have-nots will be condemned to oblivion, to abandonment, to disappearance plain and simple. This is ‘Must-Exit’ logic…entire social groups are being laid waste from the inside (individuals too). Society has forgotten them and now they are forgetting themselves. They fall out of all reckoning, zombies condemned to obliteration, consigned to statistical graphs of endangered species. This is the Fourth World. Entire sectors of our modern societies, entire countries in the Third World now fall into this Fourth World desert zone. But whereas the Third World still had political meaning (even if it was a resounding world-wide failure), the Fourth World has none.”

  • Anna Haynes

    **THANK YOU** for bringing David Bromwich to our attention – he’s new to me. Which makes me wonder, is there a “creme de la creme of HuffPo” compilation, somewhere on the site or elsewhere, that would have introduced me to him and others of his caliber? (when I visit the HP front page, I don’t see Bromwich-style writing featured…)

  • Shaman

    Thanks for this interview, Chris.

    Gosh, I am blown away by how you find these people. It is so wonderful to hear someone articulating the truth. I’m even going to listen again.

    I never posted anything regarding the Chris Hedges interview you did recently but I’m still worried about everything he said about the fall of our culture and his observation that revolution can happen suddenly.

    I could go on (and have proven as much in the past) but just have to tell how much I appreciate the work you do. I’m doing my best to spread the word. These are some of the best conversations I’ve ever heard.

  • Amazing! Ah, so America is like Alexander the Great at the end of his career.Our system designed to order a group of city-states applied to the world with a terribly ill fitting swath of military threats holding world chaos in check and leaving the American people themselves to the predatory intentions of the Banksters and other economic hit men.Even the profligate Alexander knew to return to Macedonia and recuperate before his supply lines became even more strained and the mighty phalanx itself became compromised from wear on the soldiers themselves.This Macedonian withdrawal happened only at the threat of an outright revolt from the generals themselves.We should be so lucky.David,thanks for the explication Chris and Radio Open Source once again thanks for delivering the subtlest political synthesis anywhere in the aether.Keep it up!

  • Brian

    A fascinating conversation but there’s something too clever by half in some of this very close reading. The Lawrence Wright piece in the New Yorker was amazing work, and I don’t think anybody who can read the magazine at the level even of the cartoons had doubt about what really caused the Gaza economy to collapse. It seems a forest-for-the-trees look at the piece.

    And, Bromwich seems sometimes too in the center of his own readings. At times I got the feeling that he doesn’t want us to be in Afghanistan, that he likes Obama on some level, and thus Bromwich is sure that Obama doesn’t really want to be in Afghanistan, either. Therefore when Obama talks about needing to be in Afghanistan, Obama’s language is problematic. Maybe, but I’m not entirely convinced.

    Finally, almost nobody (I won’t say nobody) likes the idea of eternal war, however much Bromwich seems to think most people do, but what does he really think would happen if we left Afghanistan? That’s the question language mavens don’t have to answer.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  • Chris, This was a very timely and thoughtful conversation. I too have felt disappointment with Obama, and this conversation sheds light on the incredible forces at work as the Military-Industrial coalition seeks to expand its influence and protect its own.

    I have long felt uneasy about Afghanistan – something about it just didn’t add up. And now even more so. I think the approach of Greg Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea”, building schools for girls in remote areas of Pakistan, would do more for Afghan culture and hope than all the military operations we can envision.

    Much more needed is an enormous transformation of OUR OWN ECONOMY. Al Gore was right. Our global common enemy is climate change. Our common solution is ENERGY – clean, renewable energy. Clean skies that we may capture pure sunlight, and no longer poison our atmosphere with our waste.

    Enormous transformations are needed, and every budding scientist and engineer can be put to work. Cars that do not run on gas – every car in America converted. New kinds of batteries to capture the sunlight, wind, and wave power. Every home in America properly insulated – imagine the building boom from that! And this is just the beginning – no telling how far the transformations can go.

    Obama needs our prayers.

  • w schaefer

    In response to Gail Murray’s statement about our common solution being energy, it’s instructive to learn of the proposed U.S. gas line project through Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. The connection, in the late 90’s, between Karzai, G.W. Bush, Ken Lay as laid out by Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNYES8KOIqY] paints a picture of U.S. oil and gas addiction (along with Russia’s and China’s) that shows no sign of abatement. China, in fact, has already broken ground on a 1,100 mile line from Kurdestan (through Afghanistan) to China at no cost in blood while we battle “Al Qaeda”.

    The day our political leaders decide to give more than lip service to the idea of energy independence is the day our relationship with the middle east will change for the better.

  • Daryl

    I have followed David Bromwich’s posts for several years now and always find them very insightful. Personally, I’ve been thinking that the reason Petraeus has suddenly been so quiet is that he is planning a run for President in 2012, and by not being on record for anything to do with the Afghanistan escalation, he can attack Obama for whatever action he take, since, whatever that action is, Afghanistan will still be a mess, especially for the Afghan people.

  • Zak

    Hi Chris, I’d like to add my name to the list of grateful listeners who have now been introduced to David Bromwich thanks to this show. I found what he had to say about “anger and confusion” as well as the NYT to be truly enlightening, if simultaneously depressing. In these days of Orwellian doublespeak, Bromwich is needed more than ever!

  • Potter

    David Bromwich is new to me so I was interested to hear him. I have not read the above comments yet.

    I read the Lawrence Wright article on Gaza and felt that it was very fair- very even handed and quite good. I have no problem with that report. Still, Israel, came out looking very bad, and would have anyway this story is told. So I thought the point that Bromwich made was insignificant. I read past or through such language gymnastics or don’t notice. I don’t say that is good that I do that and I recognize Bromwich’s focus and that others may be persuaded by the way language is used. In this case it was to ostensibly or supposedly or inadvertently “deny agency”. The criticism may not end there either (blaming the agent of this particular spectacular self-defeating crime) in the blame game. So I thought, using this example, that Bromwich has a very definite point of view and is criticizing based on his own feelings, that his view is the one that should prevail. ( I agree with his POV).

    The problem we had with Judy Miller taking stenography ( for me anyway) was that she was pushing one point of view, that of the administration, through the NYT ( with little editorial oversight it turned out right?). But quite prior to 9/11 I thought her reporting on Al Qaeda was good and we needed to be informed and alerted at a time when few were focussing on them.

    Ethan Bronner ( NYT Jerusalem bureau chief) has come into much criticism from certain quarters on the Jewish progressive left for “taking dictation” from the “powers-that-be” in Israel. I listened closely to his interview with Terri Gross months ago. He is trying very hard to be fair- ie not take a position or rather to give both sides. This may in fact be what the NYT wants I don’t know. I know the NYT gets reader criticism from at least two sides of the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict and therefore the public editor has on more than one occasion wound up saying that this means they are doing their job.

    I am okay with the reporting. The editorials are usually spot on- they were against the invasion of Iraw if I remember correctly. I go elsewhere and on the internet now for more detail and even better criticism/opinion. We don’t rely on the NYTimes that much anymore for complete nourishment ( if we ever did) even though it is still essential and we read the tree form of the paper ( expensive and probably wasteful).


    I hope that the UK sending 500 additional troops would not be indicative of Obama’s need to send many thousands more.

    As well I am in denial that we have actually accepted the culture of permanent war or torture. If we have accepted war all the time then we should be bringing in the draft- as Bill Moyers has recently called for ( again).


    I agree fully that Obama’s acquiescence, his need to placate and reassure at the expense of his principles is very ( very) troubling. Political animals across the board in every issue sense this and take advantage and will take advantage and so I am afraid that he will end up one great appeaser- a big disappointment, not the decider we long for to turn this ship around, but failing all around and maybe even a one term president. Failures because of weakness in one area are signals to others in other areas and the notion that if you push Obama, or even if you don’t, he is ready to give in.


    One good speech on the economy was prior to Obama’s election in March of 2008, if I am not mistaken about the exact date.


    Jim Lehrer had some good questions for Sheila Baer the other night- unusual for him, I agree he usually is very boring but Margaret Warner is quite good.


    Finally- what a horrible thought if it were true or of it IS true that the generals run this country. I’d like to see Obama challenge that.


    Thank you for this provocative enlightening interview.


  • A fascinating interview; Bromwich (whose edited volume of Burke is a treasure) is doing important and valuable work.

    Two things:

    1. I’m surprised that Bromwich never used the word “pragmatist” to describe Obama. That’s the one that always comes to mind first for me–he’s by nature a moderate pragmatist, one who tries to find not the best policy, but the best policy he thinks has a good chance of being implemented. From the campaign on, we’ve seen this, and thus far I think it’s worked, with a few real hiccups (probably lowballed the stimulus, may have boxed himself in a bit on healthcare by suggesting a too-small dollar amount). Part of what makes Afghanistan so tough is that pragmatism is a harder fit there: the best policy also looks like the toughest sell. Pragmatism has its limits, clearly, and in the wrong hands it can be dangerous, but I think it’s served Obama pretty well thus far.

    2. Bromwich said Obama hadn’t made a major speech on the economy, but he did, at Georgetown back in April. The transcript is here: ; some praise and criticism (specifically focused on rhetoric) by James Fallows is here:

  • from Thomas Friedman’s article on Obama’s Afghanistan troop increase: “This only has a chance to work if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won’t be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan. Yikes!”

    …”Yikes!” not the most illuminating assessment from probably the leading liberal war-hawk public intellectual.