While Nobel Peace prize recipients of the past have used their acceptance speeches to decry war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama attempted to justify it.
The speech has been praised for its “complexity” and for its “confronting the paradoxes” of a pro-war peace prize speech, but there are seven elements of the speech I found to be incoherent, self-contradictory, simple minded, hypocritical or plain dishonest.
1. WAR IS PEACE
The fundamental incoherence is the root claim that “instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” This is false. While it may be true that instruments of war have a role in ACHIEVING peace – by replacing an oppressive order with a more just one, for example – it only does this through a SUSPENSION of peace. That is the force of the activist chant, “No Justice, No Peace!”
An exception can be made, perhaps, in the case of the Cold War. One could argue, for example, that atomic weapons “preserved” the peace through the threat of mutually assured destruction. But Cold War peace was war for the “Third World”, and the arms race has left us with a military-industrial-congressional complex that dictates a hawkish foreign policy which includes the bombing of villagers with remote control robots.
2. NON-VIOLENCE IS NAIVE; NON-VIOLENCE IS NOT NAIVE
But regardless of the efficacy of instruments of war in “preserving” the peace, it should be noted that its potential to achieve peace can also be doubted, as it clearly was by both halves of Obama’s guiding binary “North Star” – Martin Luther King and Gandhi. In a blatant self-contradiction, Obama says that “there is nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naive – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King” but that at the same time he “cannot be guided by their examples alone” because he “must face the world as it is”.
(For a review of MLK’s reasons for opposing imperial wars, see our first post here.)
3. EVIL IS BAD, mmm’KAY?
And how is the world, really, in Obama’s view? It is the world of Christian mythology, where “evil” exists, evolutionary sciences are ignored, and “man” must struggle with the legacy of Original Sin.
“War, in some form or another, appeared with the first man,” Obama asserts.
Who is he talking about? Adam? Cain? Or are we supposed to think of the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001?
4. “JUST WAR” SHOULD BE GOVERNED MULTILATERALLY; THE EMPEROR’S UNILATERAL ACTIONS ARE JUST
In any case, for Obama the inevitability of war means that one must strive not to end war, but to make it more just. And this is where another incoherence of the speech emerges. First, Obama touts the role of U.S. in creating the U.N., which he commends as a mechanism “to govern the waging of war.” Then he laments that “this old architecture [i.e., the U.N.] is buckling under the weight of new threats” (never mind that the greatest threat to the U.N. in the past decade has been U.S. refusal to be limited by multilateralism and international law). Then he proceeds to re-assert the Bush doctrine of unilateralism and preventive war: “I – like any other head of state – reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation” against “threats to the American people.”
So, “just war” requires multilateral governance but it is the Emperor’s right to act unilaterally in “defense” of his nation against “terrorists”.
(For a comparison between Obama and FDR on unilateralism, see here. For an academic philosopher’s perspective on how Obama’s war fails all six criteria for a “just war”, see here.)
5. THE UNITED STATES HAS MADE THE WORLD SECURE, EXCEPT FOR A FEW MISTAKES
Here Obama’s geo-political unilateralism merges with his mythology of “good” versus “evil” to produce a thorough U.S. Exceptionalism:
“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.”
Therefore, according to Obama, each of the following either “underwrote” global security or was merely a “mistake”: the overthrow of democracy in Iran (’53), the Vietnam War (’60-’75), the bombings of Cambodia (’69-’75) and Laos (71-’73), C.I.A support of violent right wing movements in Greece (’47-’49), Guatemala (’54 and ’66), Indonesia (’65), Dominican Republic (’65-66), Chile (’73), Angola (’76 -’92), and Nicaragua (81-90), etc. – not to mention the invasion of Iraq or the torture and rendition programs.
According to Obama, the U.S. has done these things “not because we seek to impose our will” but because of “enlightened self-interest,” and he believes that “the United States must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war.”
6. ALL WHO BREAK INTERNATIONAL LAW MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE, EXCEPT FOR U.S. OFFICIALS WHO HAVE BROKEN THE LAW IN THE PAST
Obama’s incapacity for self-reflection (or, less generously, his mendacity) is boundless when it comes to the question of accountability. At every turn, OBAMA’S “Justice” Department has blocked accountability for his predecessor’s torturers and war-starters, but with a straight face he asserts that “those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable” and that “those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”
7. WE ALL SHARE A COMMON HUMANITY, EXCEPT FOR AL-QAEDA
Even Obama’s Exceptionalism unravels into incoherence, however. “As the world grows smaller,” Obama muses, ” you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we all basically want the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.” On the other hand, “negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
According to Obama, we all have a “spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” All of us, that is, except for the “vicious adversary that abides by no rules.”