Ron Rosenbaum

Obama and 'Solutionism' at the UN

Obama’s UN speech defined him as a solutionist. I envy him. I wish I were a solutionist. Do you know the word? I’ve often referred to “the American belief there’s a solution to every problem,” but I didn’t coin the word “solutionism” — although I wish I had.

I’m not sure he invented it, but the first of the some 4000-plus Google entries for “solutionism” (now 5000-plus since Obama’s speech — coincidence?) comes from my friend Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic*, writing about the Mideast. He calls solutionism “America’s national religion”: the compulsion to believe that, with good will and good faith, a solution to everything — even ancient hatreds — can be found. Maybe it’s because we’re too young a country to have experienced ancient hatreds, although we brought a lot over with us. Ancient hatreds will trump good will and good faith every time.

It’s this really very admirable “solutionism” that Obama demonstrated at the UN. The optimistic belief that with good will and good faith there’s a solution to every international problem, just as there’s a solution to health care somewhere in the 500 amendments to the Senate bill.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s better to have a solutionist as president that a bitter misanthropic anti-solutionist like myself. But solutionists are optimists about human nature, despite the evidence in front of their eyes. I know every last shred of optimism about human nature I ever had was shredded ever further by my observation of commenter culture where the twisted face of hatred hides behind the cowardly mask of a screen name.

Seriously though, it just confirmed my feeling that the worst instincts drive out the best, especially when you think no one knows your name. The way a mask — of nationalism, ideology, religion, bigotry and above all else self-righteousness — can conceal and reveal. And we expect the Afghans to all get along? As someone put it, “What planet do you live on?”

The planet of solutionism headquartered at the UN is, in fact, a writhing, seething sea of ancient hatreds. Was it Yeats who said, of the Irish problem, “big hatred, little room”? No solutionist he, although a century later things finally seem to have quieted down a bit.

We don’t have a century, with nuclear warheads and ICBMs and IRBMs and apocalyptic cults who say — of their various forms of Armageddon — “Bring it on!” At least the Irish had a tragic sense of life, one we lack and which thus makes us forever surprised and angry that a solution doesn’t magically appear despite our best efforts.

Conservatives believe they have the solution; liberals believe they do. I believe that in many cases there is no good solution. (There is occasionally a genocidal “final solution.”) Why can’t people admit this? Look at the history of the past century — a hundred million dead in wars despite all the peace treaties and peace conferences and lip service paid to peace. Some things are irreconcilable and tragic and always will be. Get used to it. I didn’t say give up. Maybe next century only 90 million will die if we keep searching for a solution. On the other hand, don’t count on a smaller figure. I’m betting the over.

Do you really think the Taliban is going to go away now? Do you really think a freeze on settlements is going to start us on the yellow brick road to peace in the Middle East? I congratulate you. I’m sure life is more tolerable for the solutionist. Ever read David Copperfield? Then you know about “Micawberism.” “Something will turn up,” Mr .Macawber liked to say. The solutionist’s mantra. “Something will turn up — dead,” the anti solutionist counters.

I don’t think there ever will be a “good” solution to the strife over Israel. Just more strife — if we’re lucky — or strife ending with holocaust or apocalypse, if we’re not.

Same with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as I’ve been writing here of late. If we stay in there’s no end in sight. The newly fashionable cult of counter-insurgency that worked — for a while — in Iraq is unlikely to be replicable in Afghanistan. At least Obama is responsive to the facts on the ground, it now seems, after the sham Afghan election tore the mask off the nation, which the nation-builders wanted to sacrifice American lives for.

Whatever choice he makes, there’s no solution but endless strife — if we’re lucky. The Taliban or al-Qaeda using Afghanistan as a springboard to seize Pakistan’s sixty plus nuclear warheads — if we’re not. As Clint said: “Do you feel lucky?”

I don’t.

Sorry to bring you down — but “solutionism” is not a solution.

*the Google link to Goldberg d.n. work and now it’s disappeared. Will restore asap.