Obama Speaks (Some) Truth From Power

Peace-PrizePresident Barack Obama’s Nobel lecture last Thursday in Oslo shows he understands that “peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict.” “Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting,” he said. Hearing a president say this is mind blowing and illustrates the side of Obama we should seek to nurture. But the President’s statement about the expansive nature of peace raises the question: Couldn’t this idea be applied also to the social conditions that gave rise to terrorism aimed at the United States in the first place?

“America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens,” President Obama said. “No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.” Unfortunately, while it might be true that the U.S. “has never fought a war against a democracy,” the U.S. has overthrown democracies when their interests collided with American global objectives. It has also propped up governments (including the current one in Kabul) claiming they are democracies when they really aren’t. History shows a long line of human rights violators the U.S. has supported over the years that specialized in “the denial of human aspirations.”

The President continues:

“For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want. . . . security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”

America’s enemies have for years told us through communiques and videos about a whole set of grievances relating directly to the failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East; policies of supporting corrupt dictatorships while extracting oil wealth and creating an environment where social justice doesn’t have a chance. Even Karl Rove recommended that Americans read Osama Bin Laden’s writings to glean greater knowledge of what animates these murderers — an ironic twist indeed since throughout the Bush-Cheney years the United States was incapable of acknowledging the underlying social and political causes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“And so, a quarter century after the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations — an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this Prize — America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, and restrict the most dangerous weapons.”

The President is correct in pointing out these vital multilateral institutions that the United States was instrumental in forming. They not only reconstructed the post-war world but also provided a foundation for a greatly improved intercourse among nations. Yet right after the war it was the United States that was the first to develop, test, stockpile, and deploy nuclear weapons. And it did so at a time when it held a monopoly on them. Any “realistic” view of history must recognize that it was the United States that pushed the world onto the path of nuclear proliferation, the terrible consequences of which we face today.

Also, a “realistic” assessment of the history of American foreign policy would have to accept that even a cursory look at the regions of the world where American power had the most influence, namely Latin America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, far from ushering in a trajectory of “democracy” and “freedom” the United States brought these places CIA overthrows of democratic governments and support for dictators and military juntas. American corporate and financial prerogatives, neo-liberal economic policies, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural adjustment” schemes (all designed to wipe away enlightened social policy) have brought forth the kind of crushing poverty in those countries that Obama understands is inconsistent with promoting peace.

President Obama’s Nobel lecture might have showed us that the United States has reached a turning point: either the national security monster we’ve created is going to eat us alive by bankrupting the country or we’re going to have to shift course. We must begin to spin off the 700 or so military bases and installations around the world and focus on building a better life for our own people here at home. As it goes today we don’t even have the political will to raise taxes to share the sacrifice of fighting these foreign wars. It’s getting to the point where the only time we hear politicians wax eloquent about how important it is to spend money on education and health care is when the goal is to try to win hearts and minds in some distant land.

I think the U.S. policy of occupying Afghanistan is foolish and fails to recognize the limits to American power. The Pashtuns don’t like foreigners in their midst and they live in vast numbers on both sides of the Durand Line. I’m afraid the United States, like the former Soviet Union, will have nothing to show for its Afghanistan adventure except for an empty treasury and a depleted military.

During the Cold War about one-third of the planet’s nations were hostile to us and we still survived it. Yet today we’re told to quake in our boots because nineteen suicidal guys with box cutters hit us eight years ago? From 1955 to 1975, we were told that Saigon was vital to the continental security of the United States; today, we’re being told the same thing about Kabul. Here’s an idea: Why don’t we close some of those U.S. military outposts all over the world and amass our soldiers along the Canadian and Mexican borders and really protect the “homeland?” As was the case in Vietnam, U.S. forces in Afghanistan already have been absorbed into the ancient political feuds of a country the U.S. is supposedly remaking in its own image.

American right-wingers screech at the thought of U.S. troops under the command of “Blue Helmeted” United Nations forces. They see it as an unacceptable infringement on U.S. “sovereignty.” But they’re perfectly happy to cede U.S. “sovereignty” to the whims of the corrupt, unpopular, and incompetent government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

We’re told that training the Afghans to take over their own security is “vital” to American “success.” Right now the only number worth watching in Afghanistan is the desertion rate of its military and security forces. When it spikes (as I expect it will) no amount of American training or arms is going to make much of a difference.

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author

Published by the LA Progressive on December 16, 2009
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).