President Obama And The Anxiety Of Ambivalence


Which is worse for Israel’s security and for the volatile Middle East: a tyrannical Syrian regime in an unsteady alliance with a nuclear Iran, or an anarchic Syria, run by “the rebels,” becoming a petri dish for al-Qaeda, situated along 375 miles of borderland with Iraq?

Which is worse from a humanitarian standpoint: a chemical attack on a small group of civilians as part of an overall staggering loss of life in a civil war, with untold atrocities and mass dislocation? Or the likelihood, as reported by The New York Times this summer, that the toppling of Assad will result in a wholesale genocide against the Alawite people of Syria who are associated with the regime?

Which is worse for American policy: a war-fatigued country and military swept again into an international conflict with no obvious exit strategy or recent record in nation-building? Or the loss of our stature as the world’s moral authority and human rights policeman while we sit this one out?

And which is worse: a president who defiantly marches his nation into a long and bloody war based on faulty and insufficient intelligence, but armed with unshakable conviction? Or a president who prevaricates publicly, sending mixed messages to friends and foes and inviting deep skepticism at home and abroad about his capacity to lead?

The choices facing the president of the United States with respect to military intervention in Syria are devastatingly difficult, an obvious reality that seems strangely — perhaps deliberately — lost on our partisan political punditry on all sides. The truth is that I, too, am not really sure how to feel about the one-day inevitable, next-day remote possibility of an American attack. This ambivalence plagues me as an American wary both of the loss of American global power that comes with inaction, as well as concerned about the loss of American global power that comes with overextending our military.

And it also concerns me as a Jew. The grotesque images of mass death remind us of our own history, and compel us to act in the world towards the prevention of this tragedy from happening to other peoples. And yet even so I am nervous about the sheer inapplicability of this doctrine to every conflict in the world and all of the attendant ripple effects of this responsibility.

Much of the noise about the president’s public ambivalence — the red lines that turn out to be a little more pinkish, or maybe even yellow; the handing over the final decision to Congress (and in turn, to the American people) rather than asserting presidential prerogative — surely must reflect, in part, a good deal of political opportunism about the president’s failings; or, as former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas was widely reported saying, opportunism for Israel’s security by letting “both sides bleed to death.”

I suspect, though, that there is a real critique under the surface about the kind of conviction we expect, even demand, from our leaders — a characteristic, or a standard, to which we often do not hold ourselves. My own ambivalence is fine; I am a stakeholder by virtue of my citizenship, but of our leaders we seem to expect that even the trickiest scenarios give way to clear courses of action. At minimum, we expect clear conviction and most importantly, clear communication, about strategy and direction.

Some of our central Jewish leadership narratives affirm this sensibility. The most famous Jewish story about an ambivalent leader describes how Samuel stripped Saul of his kingship for questioning and then postponing — possibly indefinitely, had he the chance — the divine mandate that he kill all the Amalekites, including the women and children and the now-unarmed king Agag. Saul’s kingship ends with Samuel’s sword beheading Agag, displaying the conviction of leadership to do the difficult work in service of its core obligation, and Saul’s monarchy gives way to the rise of King David — most famous for the sheer power of his sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect convictions.

The Saul story stands in marked contrast, too, to Judaism’s most famous obedience narrative of Abraham binding his son Isaac and offering him to God as sacrifice in Genesis 22. The reward for this macabre willingness to “do what needed to be done” without any of the ethical protestations that Abraham modeled so effectively four chapters earlier, in protesting the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom, is God’s affirming the promise to Abraham that he will be the forefather of a great nation and the leader of the people. To be a leader, in these models, is to be confirmed as such because of the individual’s willingness to obey the divine will with clarion-clear vision and a steady hand on the knife. Whatever we identify as God’s voice must sound strong in our ear and guide us to act swiftly and straightforwardly.

This view of leadership, which I think underlies our skepticism about the president’s public display of ambivalence, is also, of course, rather terrifying. Abraham and David are exceptional and yet extremely imperfect; in fact, their exceptionalism suggests that they may be the leaders we aspire to have but never do and never will. What’s more, the route to fascism and totalitarianism runs through the same course of clarity of moral will.

It is right and reasonable for us to feel anxious about ambivalence from our leaders, even as it is a characteristic that is rightly valued about thoughtful people. We trust our leaders to make decisions that are more difficult, consequential and costly than the ones we face in our daily lives — often with access to much more information than we have at our disposal, but sometimes not even enough — and with the necessity to act quickly and on the world stage. But we also must be cautious with what we wish for, and the risks that come with imputing to our leaders a set of characteristics that most humans do not and should not possess. Ambivalence in our hearts can reflect a genuine embrace of multiple truths and a reckoning with difficult choices. As anxious as this ambivalence may make us when it is on public display, are we truly prepared to be led into actions with grave consequences without it?

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.