by Michael Blim
President Obama’s Oslo Nobel acceptance speech, that is. It could have been given by John F. Kennedy. It could have been written by Kennedy’s Sorenson, Goodwin, or Schlesinger, filled as it was with allusions to freedom, liberty, tyranny, and the need to defend the vital center. It was all there: America the underwriter of world security and the keeper of world peace since World War II, the historic champion of democracy even when compared with Johnny-come-lately Europe, the everlasting voice for universal human aspirations.
Tough-minded idealism, cold war realism. The United States, the President says, goes to war to defend its interests only when its cause is just. Afghanistan is a war of self-defense, and thus is just. Other wars undertaken while we have protected the peace these last sixty year have been just too, and they include the first Iraq War and the Balkan wars against Serbia. Missing from the ledger of the just are the Korean, Vietnam, and Second Iraq Wars, though American action in the Korean War is still so unquestioned that its costs and consequences lie unexamined.
We live, the President tells us, in an imperfect world. In a breathtaking claim upon human nature and humanity’s history, he argues that we as a species knew war before we knew peace, and accepted war as another fact of life “like drought and disease.” Though our natures remain warlike, and evil and injustice a constant of the human condition, he believes that we have made halting steps toward the rule of reason as well as a greater human interest in governing our conduct, especially during the American half-century.
Obama’s is a profoundly Christian vision, though a less Manichean outlook than was characteristic of the hot Cold War. The persistence of evil, however, is still its center. Humanity must hope for redemption but persevere in the face of life’s inevitable iniquities. Like Browning, he argues, “that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Applying the pilgrim’s progress to war can be both deadly and deceiving. Deadly because devotion makes a casualty of proportion, and memory becomes millennial. The march of human progress makes even terrible human tragedy and mendacity small.
Clearly, Mr. Obama has lost a sense of proportion. Don’t the deaths of the Afghan War exceed the golden mean when considered against the loss of life on September 11? What kind of scale can balance the loss of life in Iraq with justice?
According to Mr. Obama, when did the United States become virtuous, exactly? With Wilson’s 14 Points? After genocide against the American Indians was finished, the Chinese sent back, and Black Jack Pershing returned from a “punitive expedition” in Mexico in 1917 to lead U.S. forces in a war to make the world safe for democracy? After killing half a million in the Philippines in a fit of imperial madness? After which invasions in Central America and the Caribbean? After the assassinations of Lumumba, the Diems, and Allende, coups too many to count in Latin America and a more than a few in Asia and the Middle East? After the Vietnam War said to have cost finally a million lives? The destabilization of Cambodia before the murderous regime of Pol Pot? The murder of at least half a million leftists by Sukarno aided and abetted by the CIA?
Obama’s claims for American virtue are a little like those of the lady who has lost hers. He doth protest too much.
But just as Stalin and the Soviet Union had its one great “patriotic war,” so the United States, Obama notes twice in the Oslo text, can point to the war against Hitler as an unassailable just war. Does one exception prove the rule here? How about a few more?
In the Oslo text, the President refers obliquely to Japan and Italy as the Axis powers, a curious considering that Japan declared war on us, and it was Hitler’s mistake rather than an American declaration that put us at war with Germany. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t think he had the votes for war in Congress until after Pearl Harbor, and public opinion polls were at best divided over the wisdom of entering the Second World War fully two years after Hitler had invaded Poland, and one year after he had conquered France. As American casualties in Europe skyrocketed after the continental invasions, so did public resentment that Americans were dying in great numbers bailing the Europeans out of their mess. Americans fought the war with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, but they appear only after Pearl Harbor to agree to its justness, despite the great Roosevelt. And of course, Hitler’s great evil notwithstanding.
This raises a sticky issue. What is the relationship, Mr. Obama, between democratic consent and embarking on what you argue is a just war? If the people prefer peace to war, is the war still just? Is a war just regardless of what people think, once they elected you? Apparently like all war presidents, you find need to invoke your powers as “Commander in Chief” something you did twice at Oslo, and twice at West Point, which makes one wonder.
One just war amidst so many unjust wars is a slender support for a just war doctrine. In fact it suggests that most wars are unjust, and that we pilgrims have not made much notable progress. As historian Eric Hobsbawm has noted, the 20th Century was perhaps the deadliest in human history, if measured by the number of the victims of states and the wars they made upon each other. And we, the United States, were the custodians of half of the century, by Obama’s account?
The President insists that his idealism is tempered by a “clear-eyed” realism. Even as he makes a special plea for America’s “special burden in global affairs,” his words at West Point, he says that our actions reflect our enlightened self-interest in seeking “a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity,” his words at Oslo. War, however unfortunate, plays a role in preserving a peace that can bring freedom and prosperity to all.
How has war made the United States or the world for that matter more free and prosperous, exactly? It has enriched a precious few at the expense of many, whether at home or abroad. War save the campaign against Hitler (and the Chinese might throw in the Japanese) has protected economic privilege, dispossessed the poor, and rendered American democracy day-by-day less an instrument of the popular will.
The Oslo speech, sadly, shows that our President is a retooled Cold War liberal, unable to acknowledge America’s longstanding imperial history, nor accept America’s imperial decline. If his prose no longer soars, if his ideas are now becoming more obviously shopworn, if the Kennedy comparisons seem so strained, it is because the world has moved on while the United States and its current President have not, prior indications on his part to the contrary.
The world needs no lectures about just wars. It tires of the “shining city upon a hill” messianism, albeit now more a metric in Obama’s hands than an incantation from its American big brother. It longs for an United States that can come to terms with its history, and “bend” itself (not history as Obama opines) “in the direction of justice.”
In the words of the prophet Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”