Indeed, “just war” and peace. U.S. Commander-in-chief Obama targeted the Kingdom of Norway aboard his fleet, Air Force One, before indiscriminately firing over 4,200 words at a peace rally in Oslo yesterday. This half-hour engagement was due to the controverted Nobel Peace Prize awarded him back in October. Many are still in shock apparently.
I just finished watching, listening, and reading the President’s speech. It was both politically and diplomatically unusual. President Obama said the word “kill” more times in one half hour than his predecessors said in their lifetimes. I’m not kidding, I’ve looked. Just kidding. I really haven’t looked.
That fun “fact” aside, the President offered nothing less of an intellectual defense of war. He allegedly wrote the entire speech himself and only solicited speechwriters for tone and such.
The Lecture in a Nutshell
At the very outset, Obama’s speech carried an implicit call to action. Immediately after greeting his audience, for example, the President said the award “speaks to our highest aspirations — that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.” (emphasis supplied). This was everything except an introduction to pacifism. He went on to acknowledge the controversy surrounding his selection, admitting his relatively slight accomplishments and naming others perhaps “far more deserving of this honor” than he.
“Some will kill, and some will be killed,” Obama bluntly remarked, referencing his decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan. He summarized the history of war and explored the concept of a “just war,” once applied before to defeat the Third Reich and the Axis powers. Obama further highlighted American leadership 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, restrict the most dangerous weapons.” He cited the benefits of commerce and “ideals of liberty . . . self-determination, equality and the rule of law . . . [as] a legacy for which [the United States] is rightfully proud.”
Obama then addressed twenty-first century threats, namely terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Although fear of war between superpowers have waned, he reaffirmed the “risk of catastrohpy” remains in the context of proliferation. The President also mentioned the smaller conflicts and tragedies that presently cripple otherwise upstanding societies. But he forthrightly proffered no solutions. Instead, he described the attributes of a people prepared to meet the challenges confronting us today — “vision, hard work, and persistence” of the sort previously exhibited by generations past. The President recognized the task “will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.”
While the President acknowledged Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s message of peace, as well as the “moral force of non-violence,” he made clear his special allegiance to America as her head of state, protector and defender. Obama expressed that he
face[s] the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
(emphasis added). He then reminded reflexive pacifists that treaties alone did not secure stability after WWII, and although mistakes were made, Obama explained that simply put, “[t]he 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.” “[T]he instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” he continued. And apart from self-defense, the President stated that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds as well, alluding to the notion of coercive intervention if necessary in other nations.
Obama also demanded that “all responsible nations . . . embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.” Attempting to solicit their support, Obama said to countries ambivalent about military action that “[t]he belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice,” the President cautioned.
Obama made a slight turn at this point in his discourse and effectively delivered a veiled criticism of lax international rules governing sanctions of insubordinate regimes. Again, he called for enforcement. He called for the world to assertively stand as one essentially. Obama then observed that even in the absence of visible conflict peace cannot be had where egregious human rights violations, political turmoil, and suppression of dissenting speech remain, threatening violence.
Interestingly, Obama immediately directed his remarks at the social relativists, who staunchly believe in the cultural integrity of societies different from our own, justifying otherwise oppressive “cultural” practices. The President warned that “even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.” He then proceeded to stress the importance of political rights and the dangers of religious fanaticism before ending his message that we can “understand . . . there will be war, and still strive for peace.”
I couldn’t help but recognize that Obama sounded like a Truman democrat and not like the reflexive pacifist that neo-conservatives expected. In fact, Republican leaders (and Sarah Palin) have reacted positively to the speech. I think this is an important point considering that people generally believe Republicans are stronger than Democrats on defense. Obama’s unapologetic mention of his recent deployment to Afghanistan certainly came as a surprise to all — and what a pleasant one for conservatives.
I say pleasant for two reasons. First, conservatives can rest easy that our president is not afraid to walk soft and swing the big stick. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly in my judgment, Obama may now have articulated the same message former President Bush kept butchering many times before. Obama’s engagement in Afghanistan is a ‘bushism’ of sorts. Politically, I suppose then, Republicans contemplating a 2012 campaign can rest easy knowing that if the President continues upon this course, it will be difficult for Democrats to distance one from the other on the issue of defense.
Indeed, recent polls may be a sign. As of December 7, 2009, for instance, Obama’s approval ratings had slipped to 47 percent according to the most recent Gallup poll. (http://www.gallup.com/tag/Presidential+Job+Approval.aspx). On Afghanistan, moreover, his numbers were at 37 percent on December 1, 2009, and they have been at low 50s for some time prior to that. For a President who has made history a few times, it may well be that Obama has made history, yet again, with his 47 percent approval as the worst rating of any president during his first year. Somebody should check the accuracy of that statement — but the point is that his numbers are worse than low.
Of course I’m not questioning Obama’s competence to lead our country. I realize our President inherited much, if not all, of the current disasters we face today. I do submit, however, that his low numbers indeed reflect the sentiments of an electorate, which are replete with information of great political import. Republicans might seize on that.
It was definitely unsual to hear a modern Democrat speak to the international community with the authority Obama preached, especially in defense of war. Maybe this is partly the reason Obama’s numbers have slipped. I do not know.
By the way, President Obama said “war” about 44 times during his discourse. He mentioned “peace” (including “peacemaking” and “peaceful”) about 32 times. He also said “force” about 10 times. And he said “kill” five times. I thought these were important to share because they contributed to the assertive tone with which Obama spoke.