If you’re smart enough to edit the Harvard Law Review, literate enough to write two very good books, clever enough to gain the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and wily enough to defeat the Republican nominee, then you’ll most certainly be able to obtain the assistance of the best and the brightest. Thus, it is no surprise that President Obama, in humbly accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, would deliver a speech that was magnificent in every way. It was erudite and didactic; it had depth and breath; it was a political masterstroke that at once quieted shrill prior criticisms, satisfied nervous supporters and disquieted unattached progressives like me.
Random assessments from three Obamaphiles: Kathleen Parker, Washington Post columnist, deemed the speech “a triumphant expression of American values and character.” Her fellow columnist, Eugene Robinson, praised it more soberly for “favoring pragmatism over absolutism.” Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in the Huffington Post, saw Obama in Oslo change “from dove to liberal warrior.”
After reading and re-reading the speech, I was saddened to discover that Obama’s primary thesis is wrong and its corollary is at best selfish and at worse deceitful. The primary thesis: war is necessary. The corollary: America occupies a selfless global high ground.
To his credit Obama straightforwardly acknowledged that his primary thesis quite nakedly contradicted what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1964 when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace. He even quoted King, "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” But, Oba-ma insisted, “Oh yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving peace.”
Obama attempted to reconcile these opposing facts: “war is sometimes necessary” and “war at some level is an expression of human folly.”
King would be appalled to hear Obama’s gratuitous assertion, “A non-violent movement could not have altered Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms,” and he would be horrified by the claim that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”
King held that war destroys peace because the essence of war is violence; war—kill and be killed—is far more than human folly. Thus, King would most likely judge Obama’s notion of gaining and preserving peace through war as quintessential folly.
Obama makes much of the concept of a just war, which, updating Reinhold Niebuhr, he succinctly defines as a military operation of last resort or self-defense, deploying proportionate force and sparing civilians whenever possible. Definitions, logically speaking, are neither right nor wrong but they must be clear and useful. This definition of just war is neither clear nor useful. Did the Civil War satisfy these conditions? The Spanish American War? The Korean War? Show me a war that is just and I’ll show you a war that is propagated in pursuit of national self-interests.
Recognizing that he took office when the world’s admiration for America was in the pits, Obama sought to lift it up as much as eloquence and sincerity would allow. Everything he said is true but he did not say everything.
He said, “the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and strength of our arms” and “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace, a Marshall Plan and a United Nations.” He did not say what the USA did to indigenous peoples, African slaves, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, Panama, Granada.
Finally, having declared the USA to be “the standard bearer” of the rules governing “the conduct of war,” President Obama in Oslo told the world that “those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable.”
With all due respect, Mr. President, the Bush W administration openly and admittedly broke those rules.
I mean no offense, sir, but it lies within your power—indeed, you swore to it in your oath of office—to hold such lawbreakers accountable. Why do you not do it?
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.