Entry from October 9, 2009

When I type the word “aspirational” I notice that my word processing program underlines it in red, signifying that it does not recognize the word. I hardly recognize it myself, but lately have felt the need of it more and more. WordPerfect, like the rest of us, had better get used to it. Formerly “aspirational” could hardly have been said to have been a needful word, but now it is. In the same way, the Nobel Peace Prize used not to be an aspirational award, but now it is, as its award to President Obama shows. I am not among those who think that this makes a mockery of the Prize. I think it was a mockery a long time ago — as the awards to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore abundantly confirm — and probably from the beginning. But at least on this occasion it has the perhaps unintended consequence of recognizing something important about the new President and his style of politics — namely the extent to which they, too, are aspirational. Just look at the two main stories in the domestic news on the same day that the Nobel was announced in Norway.

In one we were told that the administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan was to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda and give the former some unspecified role in the new Afghanistan while continuing to fight against the latter. As Scott Wilson of the Washington Post writes, “the Obama administration has concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement, regardless of how many combat forces are sent into battle” — and he quotes “a senior administration official” as saying that “the Taliban is a deeply rooted political movement in Afghanistan, so that requires a different approach than al-Qaeda.” This echoes a story in yesterday’s New York Times claiming that the administration had decided “to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

It’s a lucky thing, I guess, that the Taliban don’t pose a direct threat to the United States, since we have no prospect of defeating them. But the cynical among us, who have some acquaintance with the aspirational quality of the Obama presidency, may wonder if the two things could have anything to do with one another. Could it be that the wish to limit our commitment in Afghanistan has been father to the strategic judgment that we may and, indeed, must do precisely that? Could our new understanding that the Taliban pose no significant danger to the United States be related to our equally new understanding that we cannot hope to eliminate them? You be the judge.

Aspirational thinking seems even more likely in the case of the other story in the news. There, we were told that the Congressional Budget Office is now on board with the Baucus health care plan — which is also President Obama’s plan — and agrees that, while costing $829 billion over the next ten years, it will actually reduce the deficit. Would anybody believe this if it weren’t necessary to believe it in order to believe that President Obama will be successful? And does anyone who wishes for President Obama to be successful not believe it? Not so far as I can see. As The Wall Street Journal editorial puts it, “The political and media classes are proving they”ll believe anything.”

And why not, after all? The Nobel Prize committee will believe anything too, as they have shown by believing that President Obama has done more than anyone else in the world for peace in the last year merely by being himself and speaking highly of his own intentions. If they and other bien-pensants love him, they must also love the Fantasyland in which he increasingly appears to live — and where he requires that they live too. The road to hell, they used to say, was paved with good intentions, but now it’s the road to the Nobel Peace Prize.


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