Obama’s anti-terrorism speech: Making perfect enemy of good

Pieces like Glenn Greenwald’s long-winded dismissal of President Obama’s anti-terrorism speech explain to me why a substantial section of the left is not yet fit to govern, or to lead majorities of Americans; why some feet are firmly planted in mid-air.

His recent Guardian article “Obama’s terrorism speech: seeing what you want to see” reminds me a bit of my 21-month old granddaughter’s disdain of broccoli and love of mac and cheese. Her dislike of broccoli – even seeing it – is so fierce, she won’t even touch the mac and cheese until the broccoli is removed from her plate.

Total disarmament is Greenwald’s mac and cheese and like my granddaughter, he won’t touch anything else: unless Obama removes all else from the plate and in this case an immediate ceasing of all imperial entanglements.

Greenwald couches his dismissal in terms of the gap between the president’s words and deeds: “But whatever else is true, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions, except to the extent that they often signal what he intends not to do.”

Thus Obama’s speech is just an effort to fool us. There is no mac and cheese, and perhaps only the illusion of broccoli.

Likewise, I have been reading Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years” and note the volumes of calumny heaped – by not a few anti-slavery forces – upon that president’s tireless attention to dividing the secessionists and grasping the threads that could unravel the powerful Southern combinations of disunion and slavery.

Even so, the price of victory – otherwise highly in doubt had the border states and Northern Democrats not been neutralized from aligning with the Confederacy – was 650,000 American lives.

In hindsight, how do we judge Lincoln’s choices of “moderate” forces supporting the Union and opposing the extension of slavery like Montgomery Blair, Edward Bates, etc., who sat in his cabinet, over outright abolitionists Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner? I reckon it was the right decision – but is it the kind of strategic and tactical thinking that modern left forces can embrace?

Perhaps ideological debate, like much else in nature, must also follow some bell-shaped curve.

Maybe, there must always be fringes where the perfect remains the enemy of the good; where an olive-branch on ending the war on terror – a high risk proposition, politically, for Obama – is rejected as an enemy conspiracy rather than seized on and developed for all its worth; where Obamacare – the only doorway to universal coverage in our nation’s  history – is rejected by some because of its inferiority to Medicare for all.

On the other hand, the tendency “to make the perfect the enemy of the good”, while a often a fatal weakness when putting together a sufficiently powerful political coalition to actually make change, may still have some value.

It’s true that “the good” must always be open to inspection. Is it really “good”? Can the “good” be made better? Valid questions. Still, the big challenge for the left in the U.S. is to get out of the bleachers and on to the field, out of marginalization and in power, out of the far end of the bell curve of working-class politics.

Photo: President Barack Obama holds a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House, April 5. (White House/Pete Souza)



John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.