July 31, 2009
Barack Obama, when leaving the Senate floor a couple of years ago, called Reinhold Niebuhr “one of [his] favourite philosophers” for his account of “compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world”.
President Obama, when grappling with the problems of Afghanistan, should again study Niebuhr, regarded as the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.
Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” However, he warned that Americans must not succumb to the self-righteous delusions of innocence and infallibility. He was concerned with the conflict between American ideals and their unintended consequences.
The US Afghanistan policy review is awaited and will presumably address whether the means being employed will deliver the desired objectives. It is unlikely to conclude that resolution by military power is Utopian and that the realists are men like Niebuhr.
Despite the Iraqi experience and the change of US administration, the NATO allies still appear to be seeking western solutions to Afghan problems. Democracy, in the form of elections, does not necessarily deliver the right government. The Karzai government is as much the problem as the solution: but there’s no current alternative.
Afghanistan is a tribal country of constantly changing and easily bought, ‘loyalties’. We need to provide an economic alternative to opium growing. We need to find an economic alternative to fighting for the Taliban or others. We need to show the clear advantages of supporting the allies.
Above all, an Afghan solution has to be found to an Afghan problem. The allies – which means the Americans – must not look at the country through western glasses and according to western aspirations.
And Obama must remember Niebuhr.Author : Stanley Crossick