It’s no surprise that William Kristol is critical of Obama’s response to the murder of James Foley. But some of the reasons for Kristol’s opposition are disquieting (Weekly Standard, September 1).

He chastises the President for speaking as a citizen of the world instead of as the American President. Fair enough; there’s not a little hubris in Obama’s implicit claim to be the spokesman for the General Conscience of Humanity.

But then Kristol quotes this: “no just God would stand for what [ISIL] did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.” Obama also expressed the hope that “people like this ultimately fail.”

Ultimately isn’t adequate for Kristol: “Americans . . . know that ‘ultimately’ might be a very long time. A lot of innocents can die before then. And that ultimate failure isn’t typically caused by the actions of ‘the entire world,’ and perhaps not even by those of a just God. The president said that the killers fail ‘because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.’ But to make ‘people like this’ fail, the builders need to dedicate themselves to destroying the destroyers. In the past century, the evildoers failed because America and its allies fought them and defeated them.”

Leave to the side the inner tension between Kristol’s denial that the “entire world” unites to defeat thugs and his admission that 20th-century thugs were defeated by “America and its allies” (which constituted, of course, a goodly portion of the entire world).

It’s the eschatology that alarms. If there’s going to be justice, Kristol implies, we’ve got to achieve it, and soon, before any other innocents are killed. We can’t wait for final judgment, and we “perhaps” can’t even depend on God. 

Defense of the innocent is the chief responsibility of political power. Defense of innocent others has been, like it or not, one of America’s vocations for well over a century. But the pursuit of justice must be restrained by a realistic assessment of limits, most particularly the limits of America’s ability to effect justice on the far side of the globe.

Even George W. Bush was eventually abashed at the bombastic original name of the Iraq invasion, Operation Infinite Justice. Kristol, not so much.

One of the strengths of classic conservatism is its sense of the limits of human potential for justice, its warnings about “immanentizing the eschaton.” For classic conservatism, the demand for Eschaton Now is close to the core of the totalitarian dream. 

Classic conservatism’s eschatology wasn’t a thoroughly Christian eschatology. Christian eschatology insists that the Eschaton has already been immanentized, in the incarnate Son and His Spirit-filled body. 

But Christianity has an eschatological reserve: Christ came to do justice, but final justice is what Obama says it is, justice done by a just God at a final judgment. It’s a justice for which we wait in hope - active hope, but hope nonetheless. Stressing both the already and the not yet, Christianity combines sober realism with stirring utopianism. The combination has been erratic at times, but orthodoxy has been able to embrace both.

In any case, Kristol’s is a very different conservatism, rooted in a very different, and disquieting, eschatology. 

More on: Foreign Policy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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