Friday, December 11, 2009

Speaking of American exceptionalism…

In reconciling getting a Nobel Peace Prize just after calling for a military escalation in Afghanistan, President Obama boldly made the case for ‘just wars’ such as the one in Afghanistan. At the same time, he spoke of America’s exceptionalism by lauding the contributions the United States has made in promoting peace when we fought World War II, produced the Marshall Plan, helped with the creation of the U.N., and participate in nuclear disarmament.

Yet the gist of his acceptance speech was reconciling how war is sometimes necessary while at the same time mankind must strive for a better world:

We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected,” he said at the end of the speech. “We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place… So let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

Obama addressed two criticisms from those who did not want him to receive the award:

1. He does not deserve the award:

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize -- Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela -- my accomplishments are slight,” he said. “I cannot argue with those who find these men and women -- some known, some obscure to all but those they help -- to be far more deserving of this honor than I.”

2. He is receiving a peace prize as his country fights two wars:

I face 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.”

Just as in his Berlin speech during the presidential campaign, Obama also argued how the United States has helped forge world peace:

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.

Yet he also said -- in a swipe at Cheney and Bush -- that the U.S. must adhere to the standards that govern wars:

America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

Obama then discussed three ways the world can build lasting peace:

1. Enact and enforce tough sanctions and penalties on countries Korea that violate rules and laws:

But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system…. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia.

2. Protect the inherent rights and dignity of all peoples:

I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear.

3. Promote economic security and opportunity:

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive.

You would think that even the most ardent critic of the president's foreign policy would have a hard time picking apart President Obama’s Oslo speech. In fact, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and Sarah Palin all lauded the speech because Obama went before the Nobel Committee of Peace to reconcile how war is sometimes necessary while, at the same time, mankind must strive for a peaceful world.

But if all that we notice in President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture is a justification of war, we will miss the crux of his thinking – that he called forth the hope of peace. President Obama spoke of a 21st century ‘just peace’, the middle ground between thinking of a ‘just war’ and pacifism – defining what a 'just peace' is and articulating how to go about providing such a peace.

President Obama absolutely believes in American Exceptionalism. It’s just not the perverted neo-con version that Dick Cheney extols.