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Hope, Humility and the Promise of Obama

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I admit it, I'm a pessimist. When my college classmates would gush about how globalization will help foster cultural understanding I would remind them of the 9/11 attacks. When I moved to DC, and friends would look forward to a progressive re-taking of the country, I would point to the seemingly widespread public support for "freedom fries." So it was with some discomfort that I found myself, in the summer of 2007, in a DC nightclub getting chills at the speech of a relatively unknown politician hoping to become President.

That man, obviously, was Barack Obama. I was thrilled that finally a Democrat seemed willing and able to infuse politics with the progressive brand of Christianity that had been overshadowed by the far right. Secretly, though, I doubted his viability, partly due to the handicaps faced by a man named Barack Hussein Obama--especially after John Kerry was vilified for knowing French. But I also doubted it due to my inherently pessimistic view of history, that the righteous and the powerful will never become the same. Now, that discomfort has returned: I am optimistic about the potential for change in this country, and a renewed liberal-international approach to our foreign policy.

Yet, we must remind ourselves of the dangers of overwhelming confidence in the righteousness of our cause. We must remember that in 1096 the First Crusade was launched to cries of Deus le Volt -- God wills it. The belief that God, the forces of history, or fate are in line behind us can lead to the perversion of the most noble goals. Or, more commonly, it results in failed expectations and downgrading of prospects for future change. The former can be seen in the disastrous foreign policy of the Bush administration. The belief by Bush (and others) that they were doing the Lord's work led to the justification of policies that were both ineffective and morally unsound. The latter, though, has emerged in several Democratic Administrations' attempts to induce change, such as Wilson's failed League of Nations. Overconfidence led to a lack of attention to the great difficulties faced in applying morality to foreign policy, and a loss of public support leading to the rise of isolationism or even a conservative Crusade, as seen in George W. Bush. This balance, between progressive ideals and humility, will be crucial to the future of the United States, and possibly the world.

Thankfully, President Obama seems to realize this balance, and this challenge was ably met in his inauguration speech and earlier campaign appearances. He conveyed confidence in the nation's capabilities, discussing the "greatness of the nation." Obama declared that "we are ready to lead once more," setting out an expansive progressive agenda for international engagement. Yet the speech was also, as the BBC's Richard Lister said, "sobering." Channeling Washington, he spoke of being "humbled" by this task and highlighted the severe troubles America faces. He appeared to hint that America will remain great only through the continued efforts of its citizens and the "justness of our cause," and not through the inflated machismo of the Bush Administration.

I think this balance in Obama's speech was best expressed in his reference to Scripture, citing 1 Corinthians 13:11, that "the time has come to set aside childish things." The context of this allusion is telling:

...when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.

We can strive for perfection -- and achieve progress in the world -- but it will be brought about only through mature humility and sacrifice.

This balance will hopefully be expressed in Obama's policies. We can further disrupt al-Qaeda, but can never defeat "terror." We can stop the genocide in Darfur, but not end all suffering in Africa. And we can end the war in Iraq, but realize we will have to make difficult choices between two evils if we hope to use military force for progressive ends. President Obama should harness the optimism of the crowds in DC and throughout the nation, and use it to implement change. But we must be wary of becoming too assured of the righteousness of our cause, and replacing one Crusade with another.

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