After President Obama delivered his Nobel Peace Prize speech last week, Politico noted it was “drawing praise from some unlikely quarters – conservative Republicans – who likened Obama’s defense of “just wars” to the worldview of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.” They added:

It’s already being called the “Obama Doctrine” – a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that U.S. military can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends.

Some people, however, are not so surprised. They claim (or at least soon will) that the genesis of the Obama Doctrine originated from an unlikely source: First Things.

If you haven’t heard the latest rumor/conspiracy theory—and you probably haven’t since I’m just now putting this out there in order to debunk it before anyone else connects the dots—it goes something like this: A First Things article which revived interest in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and connected his views with the Global War on Terror influenced David Brooks, who in turn influenced Barack Obama, who used the idea (mixed with progressive elements) as the basis for the Obama Doctrine.

There is obviously nothing to this conjecture and I provide this timeline—from FT to Brooks to Oslo—solely for informational purposes and not, as it might appear, to shore up speculation about whether this magazine is inadvertently influencing the President’s foreign policy:

February 2002: Wilfred M. McClay—a member of First Things ’ editorial board—publishes an article on Niebuhr titled, ” The Continuing Irony of American History ,” that connects Niebuhrian realism to the war in Afghanistan.

September 2002: David Brooks writes a feature on Niebuhr for The Atlantic in which he links to and references McClay’s article. Brooks ends the piece by saying: “If there is going to be a hawkish left in America again, a left suspicious of power but willing to use it to defend freedom, it will have to be revived by a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr.”

October 2006: Brooks, now a New York Times columnist, writes ” Run, Barack, Run ” in which he urges Senator Barack Obama to run for the presidency.

April 2007: Two months after taking the advice of columnist and announcing his candidacy, Obama meets with Brooks. In his column the next day Brooks writes :

Yesterday evening I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in Africa. His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they’re afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on.

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . .   the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”


Later in the column Brooks asks, “[H]as Obama thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own — a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts?”

(Key Speculation: Did Obama give that answer because he had read Brook’s article in The Atlantic? Did Brooks influence—perhaps through his writings—Obama’s approach to foreign policy?)

December 10, 2009: President Obama gives his Nobel Peace Prize speech in which (with echos of McClay’s article) he connects “Niebuhrian realism” with the war in Afghanistan. Ben Smith of Politico writes, “Somewhere, David Brooks is writing another column about Reinhold Niebuhr.”

December 14, 2009: David Brooks writes another column about Reinhold Niebuhr—and Obama ( “Obama’s Christian Realism “).

December 15, 2009: First Thoughts blog connects the dots in order to dispel this soon-to-be rampant rumor that we are responsible for influencing Brooks who in turn influenced Obama to view Niebuhr as a GWOT hawk.

Whether such a connection can be made between this magazine and the President’s foreign policy—and again I bring this up only to express my own doubts about the veracity of this claim—I assure you that it is unintentional. First Things does not want to take either credit or blame for the Obama Doctrine. Whether Mr. Brooks secretly passes along old copies of this magazine to the President (another rumor you might have heard) or whether Obama is (as some might suggest) a closet theocon, we have no knowledge. Any resemblance of his views to those that we have expressed in the past are (we are almost certain) completely coincidental.

Update: Uh-oh. Senior editor-at-large James Nuechterlein makes a confession that adds a new twist and reduces my ability to quash this rumor:

Mr. Carter doesn’t know the half of it. In September 1996 David Brooks and I were among the speakers at a conference at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. I was then editor of First Things and Mr. Brooks was senior editor of The Weekly Standard . (The papers from that conference were later published by the Center for Economic and Policy Education at Saint Vincent’s under the title Public Life and the Renewal of Culture.) My essay was entitled “Religion and Politics: The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Afterwards, Mr. Brooks told me that he was not very familiar with Niebuhr but that my lecture had convinced him that he should be. We spoke further of Niebuhr’s work, and, as I recall, I suggested some of Niebuhr’s writings that he might find of use. So you can see that the Brooks-Niebuhr-First Things-Obama nexus (conspiracy?) is deeper than even Mr. Carter suggests.

Articles by Joe Carter

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