December 11, 2009

I wasn’t expecting much from Obama’s speech in Oslo – it’s not a particularly consequential event, and politically there are far more potential downsides than upsides (it only takes one little blurb that can be taken out of context and amplified, unfortunately, for the righties to go to town and harp endlessly about apologies and weakness and whatnot).

But there were a number of interesting things in there. The president, of course, was in the uncomfortable position of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at a time when well over 100,000 US soldiers were fighting in two wars. In fact, Obama’s announcement that the war in Afghanistan would be escalated came only days before (which itself may not have been coincidental, given right-wing speculation – never to be taken seriously, of course – that the administration would be pressured to back off from the fight as a result of the prize). The fact that this is a war-time president was, therefore, on everyone’s mind in Oslo, and it’s no surprise that President Obama addressed this head-on.

What’s interesting, however, is that he didn’t truly offer any fully elaborated justification for Afghanistan. He discussed “just war,” but only so far as to take on pacifism and rigidly non-violent approaches to international affairs. There’s a lot of room, to say the least, between Gandhi and wars of choice like Iraq and Afghanistan. One can accept that wars are sometimes, or even frequently, necessary without believing that the invasions and nearly decade long occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were.

The president also addressed just war in the sense of a war’s conduct, rejecting torture and other violations of internationally accepted rules of combat. He didn’t go much further than boilerplate on this issue, and chose not to address some of the continuing controversies over America’s treatment of detainees or whether (or how) the United States should deal with war crimes committed under the previous administration.

Again, I didn’t expect more, or even really this much, so this shouldn’t be taken as criticism but rather observation. I certainly did not expect the president to offer a disposition on America’s justification for escalating the war in Afghanistan, and I’m well aware that the results would have been quite poor were he to have attempted to do so. From the point of view of political horse-racing, the speech was excellent. From the point of view of US interests, well, I don’t think the Nobel makes a difference much one way or the other – no speech would have made our wars easier to win, our alliances tighter, prevented global warming, or blanketed us with manna from heaven. But just looking at the content of the speech, well (and again, not surprisingly!), there really wasn’t a whole lot there. And yet it hinted on issues that Americans should be thinking about quite deeply: when America should go to war both in terms of our interests and our morals, the ethics we should adhere to in their conduct, and the significance of our alliances and international institutions.

As a final note, I was pleased to hear Obama say that hope for the future lies not in changes to human nature, but in the strength of our institutions. I wholeheartedly agree, and think that this needed to be said in, of all places, Europe. There is a tendency among Europeans, particularly on the left (and, I’m sorry to say, among fellow lefties here in the States!), to say, or at least to quietly assume, that human nature among certain groups has somehow progressed since the Second World War. In particular, that Europeans somehow learned their lessons from the horrors of WWII and from Hitlerism and have somehow woken up from the prolonged nightmare of human history. Having stared into the abyss, they have now somehow become Enlightened Post-Humans.

This is bullshit. We are the same violent and mentally fucked-up animals that we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 10,000 years ago. Human institutions have changed over those years profoundly, and we have learned new and clever ways to keep our darkest inclinations in check. But they are there. And if these institutions were to disappear tomorrow, we would rather quickly revert to a Lord-of-the-Flies-type state of nature.

To think otherwise is, indeed, naive. Additionally, this view of humanity – that we are not and never will be angels – is at the core of founding principles of the United States. These views were quite explicitly held by the Founders (who themselves were most certainly not the virtuous and wise Disney cartoon characters we’ve made them out to be).

Furthermore, the left holds no monopoly over this way of thinking. A similarly unhealthy view of human nature underlies the obsession of many on the right with the Glorious Nature of American Culture and Our Way of Life. They worship Real Americans who watch NASCAR, eat loads of meat, hunt, and live in the sticks. They expound endlessly about the virtues of the American People (or at least the “Real” ones). This, too, is bullshit. You don’t have to be a world traveler to notice that America is populated with the same bunch of self-important and self-interested imbeciles as the rest of the world. Our government was purposely set up to divide power and weaken the majority’s ability to dictate law because of this very fact. We’re just not all that.

Unfortunately Obama is right. War, and the horrors that go along with, is all to often the ethical choice. Pacifism is not in itself a virtue. We will never progress beyond human violence.

And, as Obama somewhat courageously pointed out, considering his audience, the United States has, to a large degree, underwritten the stability and peace of many places in the world, especially Europe, over the past 65 years, and has done so at great expense in blood and treasure. It most certainly has not always gotten it right, and has certainly started more wars and caused more bloodshed and misery than was necessary to achieve this goal. But the point is not American beneficence – after all, we have only acted in our own considered self-interest. The point is that peace does not simply stem from peaceful intentions. It requires strong international institutions and, perhaps most importantly, careful attention to the balance of military power.

None of this, though, serves to justify the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.


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