In the Arena


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Marty Peretz, the editor-in-chief of the New Republic–which contains some excellent reporting by writers who must be embarrassed–has grown increasingly bitter about President Obama. Indeed, the bitterness tracks perfectly with the President’s insistence that Israel freeze its settlements.

And now, Peretz has deigned to deliver a diagnosis of the President’s mental illness…

So this question arises: If Obama could not get Chicago over the finish line in Copenhagen, which was a test only of his charms, how will he persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons capacity or the Arabs, to whom he has tilted (we are told) only tactically, to sit down without their 60 year-old map as guide to what they demand from Israel.

What I suspect is that the president is probably a clinical narcissist. This is not necessarily a bad condition if one maintains for oneself what the psychiatrists call an “optimal margin of illusion,” that is, the margin of hope that allows you to work. But what if his narcissism blinds him to the issues and problems in the world and the inveterate foes of the nation that are not susceptible to his charms?

To which one can only say: On what basis? This fits too neatly into a meme that neoconservatives–more than the right-wing populists–have been rehearsing since the summer of 2008: Obama is a show pony. He’s a celebrity. He’s the Messiah (according to Norman Podhoretz, in the Wall Street Journal recently). He’s The One. This makes it convenient whenever Obama does fail for his opponents to say: AHA! So he’s not The Messiah, after all….and any failure, as we’ve seen, leads to the inevitable–he’s collapsing!

All nonsense, of course, as the jury is still very much out. Friday was a dismal day for the President–the jobs numbers, Copenhagen and so forth. And the economy is, I’d guess, a bit more shaky than the recent Wall St. runup may make it seem. But Obama is having a pretty good autumn, after an absent August. The Iran talks went better than expected–and may actually prove a breakthrough, if the Iranians make good on their pledge to send their enriched fuel overseas for processing.  And Obama has gotten closer to passing a unversal health care plan than any President in history, with the likelihood of some sort of success growing daily. (The fact that Dr. Bill Frist, former Republican Senate Majority, told Karen Tumulty that he’d vote for the bill is no small deal.)

There are solid philosophical arguments that can be made against what Obama is doing. There are strong arguments that can be made either way on Afghanistan.  I still think the various health care proposals place too much of a burden on an already strapped private sector. But Peretz–allegedly the impresario of one of our most distinguished journals of liberal thought–is making none of those. He is indulging in standard Likudnik name calling–Israel good, Iran eeeee-vil–and indulging in the neoconservative efforts to create a Straw Messiah.

I don’t mind when Peretz, or anyone, goes off the liberal reservation–so long as his argument is carefully reasoned. I’ve been known to be flagrantly “unreliable” myself…and the Left has been known to be disastrously wrong, from time to time. But at a moment when Israel is intransigent on an important element of Middle Eastern peace–freezing the settlements–and Iran is showing some flexibility in the nuclear talks, Peretz’s name-calling and long-distance psychiatry seems the behavior of a brat who isn’t getting his way. It would be sad if he weren’t so vicious.