Thursday, June 10, 2010

Beinart Thinking Again

Peter Beinart has a new piece on conservative myths about Ronald Reagan at Foreign Policy. Much of this treads old ground about Reagan's relative doveishness and caution in the Cold War, in Latin America, and in confronting terrorism - and the dismay he provoked in contemporary conservatives. The most interesting part is on how Obama compares to him, and can learn from him.
Like Reagan, Obama took office in an environment that severely constrains the ability of the United States to launch new military campaigns. For many contemporary conservatives, being a Reagan disciple means acting as if there are no limits to American strength. But the real lessons of Reaganism are about how to wield national power and bolster national pride when your hands are partially tied. That doesn't mean Obama should mimic all of Reagan's policies, some of which were deeply misguided. But Obama can, and should, be Reaganesque in his effort to project great strength at low risk. That means understanding that America's foreign-policy debates are often cultural debates in disguise.
Essentially, Obama should learn the art of symbolic acts which satisfy the national psyche without creating political obligations. Reagan was not always good at this, considering Bitburg, but it was a definitive theme of his presidency. It has been, and will be different for Obama, who is hampered by the extraordinary symbolism of his race. Moreover, his conservative critics lead the discussion on symbolic issues, most recently over his precedented non-attendance at Arlington for Memorial Day, leaving him little room for personal innovation.

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