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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