Pardon me if I can’t join in the fawning praise for President Obama’s Nobel address. “It was, as ever, a bravura performance,” one newspaper said editorially. That it was, but I can’t agree with those, including some people with whom I’m usually in agreement, that it was a “good” speech. It wasn’t good at all. It was mostly one long sound bite, carefully crafted to justify the Obama Administration’s decisions regarding the war in Afghanistan. Intellectually it came up short.
The editors at the Financial Times called the Oslo speech “a robust defense of liberal interventionism.” In the pages of Asia Times, Jim Lobe, described the speech as having “enunciated a worldview that places him squarely within the realist and liberal internationalist thinking that dominated post-World War II US foreign policy – at least until his predecessor’s ‘global war on terror’.”
“In asserting before the Nobel Academy that ‘evil does exist in the world’ and that ‘there will be times when nations will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified’, Obama echoed the realism long favored by Republican policymakers in particular,” wrote Lobe. “ At the same time, his emphasis on the importance of building international institutions designed to prevent war – ‘an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this prize’, he noted – as well as to ‘protect human rights, prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous weapons’, echoed the liberal internationalist creed embraced, at least rhetorically, by Democratic presidents since Wilson himself.” The Financial Times noted that the President’s robust realism was tempered by the admonition that it should be “conducted by the US in concert with its allies, within a framework of engagement – ‘not as makers of war but as wagers of peace’.”
“Was this yet another example of this supremely articulate man wanting to communicate with many audiences at once, having it all ways?”, the paper asked?
The logic of Obama’s speech relied upon a number of myths.
First, there is the assertion that the U.S. has always been a force of liberty and security in the world. “Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions – not just treaties and declarations – that brought stability to a post-World War II world,” the Nobel Prize winner said. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
Fine words but the world, like the elephant, has memory. It will not forget the political, diplomatic and military support given corrupt reactionary regime from one corner of the globe to another. An eloquent speech will not erase the memory of Washington’s role in the overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Chile and its propping up for decades reactionary regimes in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The bone of contention in nearly all these cases was access to the natural resources of the country involved. The world could hardly have forgotten that the U.S. took up the French project of preventing the Vietnamese people from deciding themselves how they want to run their county at a cost of over 600 billion dollars, 2,122,244 lives lost and 3,650,946 wounded. Another Nobelist, Nelson Mandela was and is a member of an organization the U.S. State Department called “terrorist” while it was leading the fight against apartheid.
Obama noted that there is “in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.” The people of Latin America have reason to be wary and the people of Africa have just cause to be alarmed that the U.S. is moving to set up Africom – a new structure of military operations on that continent.
I’d be greatly surprised if alarm bells went off all over Latin America last week when increasingly neo-con sounding Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned governments there of possible “consequences” resulting from their relations with Iran and lecturing them on how to deal with China. She also claimed that the Administration’s weak-kneed response to the military coup in Honduras has been “pragmatic, principled” and multilateral.” If that’s the kind of new liberal interventionism elucidated in Obama’s Oslo speech, the world doesn’t need it.
Second, the Obama speech willfully distorted the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan and the Administration’s policy there. The word “Taliban” was not uttered in the speech. Listening one might have thought that 30,000 additional troops were being dispatched to fight Al Qaeda, which by most accounts has fighters numbering in the hundreds. Actually, they are being sent to defeat the Taliban which, in fact, means going up against a resurgence of Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And, comparing Al Qaeda to German fascism might seem cleaver but it is just a rhetorical trick. The industrialized Nazi state had the most advanced military machine in European history; Al Qaeda doesn’t have a single tank.
Al Qaeda is a threat and must be defeated but the President has failed to explain with any conviction why that should entail a military onslaught in Afghanistan and the remaking of that country. The President keeps saying we are not involved in “nation building” but it’s looking more and more like nation wrecking.
The problem is Obama knows all this. He reads books. He knows history. He has the ability to surround himself with knowledgeable and creative people capable of coming up with proposals to solve the real problems of the 21st Century. Yet, he all too often comes across as wanting to have it all ways.
It’s no doubt true that the prime motivation for awarding Obama the Nobel Prize was the fact that he is not George W. Bush and that’s good enough reason for me. Most of the known world breathed a fulsome sigh of relief when the latter was sent back to the ranch. Obama “has changed the conversation internationally by moving the US back towards a preference for multilateralism,” said the Financial Times. “He is right, moreover, to argue that the search for peace is not the same as the practice of pacifism. ‘The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it,’ he said. Afghanistan, to which he has just dispatched 30,000 more troops, may turn out to be a forlorn enterprise. But it is not illegitimate warmongering.
“Yet, for his ringing Oslo speech to translate into peacemongering – rather than a retreat into a shallow realism he rejected – things really do need to start happening.
“Promoting nuclear disarmament and preventing the spread of atomic weapons – ‘a centerpiece of my foreign policy’– may advance through Mr. Obama’s bold engagement with Russia. He also needs to complete an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, and somehow engage an unyielding, yet vulnerable regime in Tehran in a way that satisfies the security concerns of all in the region and prevents a new war. To that end, it would help if the US and its allies push hard for a viable Palestinian state, the real guarantee of Israel’s future security.
The paper goes on to say Obama has got to come to “intellectual grips with the challenges the world and the U.S. faces. It is time for some follow through.”
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