Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama’s immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.” Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics.

That Obama’s record and statements have created any other impression cannot be ascribed only to his campaign’s political skills and the news media’s favor. Liberal intellectuals have largely abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama’s image. Hardly any prominent liberal thinkers stepped forward to question Obama’s rationalizations about his relationship with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Instead, they hailed his ever-changing self-justifications and sometimes tawdry logic—equating his own white grandmother’s discomfort in the presence of a menacing stranger with Wright’s hateful sermons—as worthy of the monumental addresses of Lincoln. Liberal intellectuals actually could have aided their candidate, while also doing their professional duty, by pressing him on his patently evasive accounts about various matters, such as his connections with the convicted wheeler-dealer Tony Rezko, or his more-than-informal ties to the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers, including their years of association overseeing an expensive, high-profile, but fruitless public-school reform effort in Chicago. Instead, the intellectuals have failed Obama as well as their readers by branding such questioning as irrelevant, malicious or heretical.