What you think of a presidential candidate is in large measure determined by what you think of the world. Different circumstances call for different talents, different sensibilities, different approaches to power. "Leadership" comes in many forms. A sterling individual may be historically inappropriate; and a person whom it is impossible to admire may accomplish significant things. The question of whether Barack Obama will make a fine commander-in chief finally depends on your view of the direction of history in the coming years. I cannot escape the foreboding that we are heading into an era of conflict, not an era of conciliation. I do not mean that there will be many wars, though I cannot imagine that the threat to American security from Al Qaeda and its many associates can be met without a massive and sustained military operation in western Pakistan, and I cannot imagine any Pakistani government ordering such an operation. It is not "the politics of fear" to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat, somewhere deep inside a quasi independent territory we might call Islamistan people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)
One of the striking features of Obama's victory speeches is the absence from these exultations of any lasting allusion to the darker dimensions of our strategic predicament. He makes no applause line out of American defense. And jihadist terrorism is only one of the disorders in an increasingly disordered world. The most repercussive fact of our time is surely the transformation of China. The "metrics" are all staggering. Quantities, quantities, quantities. China already has the power to wreck the American economy. However many tanks and fighters it has, its hoarding of American dollars is itself a kind of arsenal. And the bounty of wealth that it promises American business, the fantasy of greed-fulfillment that it represents, makes it almost impossible to conduct a serious discussion of the implications of this emerging world power for American principles and American interests--certainly not in Washington, where, when it comes to the art of dodging debate, Beijing is better than Bandar. What China wants, China gets. Not even the gold medal in tyranny that Beijing will win in its Olympics will make a difference. Meanwhile the authoritarian Putin has punkishly succeeded in restoring Russia to its inglorious heritage, reminding the world of the old formula that capitalism plus state power equals fascism. In Iran, none of Ahmadinejad's domestic troubles seem to have modified the state's sense of ascendancy, or its will to nuclearize itself, or its appetite for instability in its region. In Iraq, the streets are safer but the sects are not sweeter. In the Korean peninsula, diplomacy has gone ominously cold. In Palestine there are two Palestines, and one of them belongs to Hamas. In Darfur--well, you know, because everybody knows. In Latin America, the failures of liberal economics have sullied the reputation of liberal politics. And so on.
All this even before we attend to the elimination of poverty. And into this unirenic environment strides Obama, pledging to extract us promptly from Iraq and to negotiate with our enemies. What is the role of a conciliator in an unconciliating world? You might think that in such conditions he is even more of an historical necessity-but why would you think that all that stands between the world and peace is one man? George W. Bush was not single-handedly responsible for getting us into our strategic mess and Barack Obama will not be single-handedly responsible for getting us out of it. There are autonomous countries and cultures out there. The turbulence that I have described is not caused by misunderstandings. It is caused by the interests of powers and the beliefs of peoples. Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, Islamabad, Gaza City, Khartoum, Caracas-does Obama really believe that he has something to propose to these ruthless regimes that they have not already considered? Does he plan to move them, to organize them, to show them change they can believe in? With what trick of empathy, what euphoria, does he hope to join the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds in Iraq? Yes, he made a "muscular" speech in Chicago last spring; but I have been pondering his remarks about foreign policy in the ensuing campaign and I do not detect the hardness I seek, the disabused tone that the present world warrants. My problem is not with "day one": nobody is perfectly prepared for the White House, though the memory of Bill Clinton's "learning curve" is still vivid, which in Bosnia and Rwanda cost more than a million lives. My problem is that Obama's declarations in matters of foreign policy and national security have a certain homeopathic quality. He seems averse to the hurtful, expensive, traditional, unedifying stuff.
"False hopes?" Obama told a crowd in New Hampshire. "There's no such thing." How dare he? There is almost no more commonplace trait of human existence (and of African American existence) than false hopes. I want universal health care, but I do not want to be relieved of the little that I have understood, and learned to accept, about the recalcitrance of the world. After Bush, who is not for a fresh start? But there is something unfresh about Obama's movement for freshness. We have been this young before. "She starts old, old," Lawrence wrote, in his discussion of the Leatherstocking Tales, "wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America." So can we agree on a ground between cynicism and myth? Or must we have Camelot once more? After all, being young again is also a way of living in the past. There was something mildly farcical about the Kennedys' endorsement of Obama-of this candidacy that is alleged to signify an alternative to the dynasties, and a break with ideological antiquity; but worst of all was its brazen delight in mythologization. (Thanks to the Obama campaign, millions of Americans now hold that John Kennedy was a great president and that Lyndon Johnson was not responsible for making civil rights and voting rights into law.) I understand that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.
This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.