Up Is Down - The War President and the Peace Prize
by Paul Donahue
15 December 2009
I cannot allow Obama’s recent acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize pass without comment. Like virtually every statement out of his mouth, Obama’s speech was filled with half truths, distortions, doublespeak, hypocrisy, and lies. But what can you expect from the hypocritical spectacle of a war president accepting the Nobel Peace Prize just days after escalating his war? As one political commentator has noted, Obama should have received the Nobel Prize for Public Speaking. Below is the full text of Obama's speech, with my comments to the speech added in red caps.
15 December 2009
"A Just and Lasting Peace"
Barrack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
10 December 2009
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, citizens of America, and citizens of the world:
I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that 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 (Yes they do and yes they can - just ask the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.) in the direction of justice.
And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize - Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela - my accomplishments are slight. (No, they’re not. It’s just that all Obama’s significant accomplishments have made the world a less peaceful place. Again, just ask the Afghanis and Pakistanis.) And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; (Like many of the prisoners held illegally, tortured, and brutalized in U.S. run gulags such as Guantanamo and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.) those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. 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.
But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. (No, it’s not. There are some 120,000-125,000 U.S. troops and about an equal number of U.S. “contractors” still in Iraq.) The other is a conflict that America did not seek (Yes, it did. invasion plans for Afghanistan were on George Bush’s desk before 9/11. Now as then, this is a war for the control of natural gas pipeline routes, and this is made abundantly clear by leaked documents and recorded statements of administration officials.); one in which we are joined by forty three other countries - including Norway - in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks. (Like the U.S., the countries of NATO have a vested interest in controlling the natural gas pipeline route.)
Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill (Therefore, Obama will be responsible for those deaths). some will be killed. (And he will be responsible for their deaths.) And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict (For him to have an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict, a 500 pound bomb would have to fall on the White House, killing his wife and daughters.) - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace (It’s a pretty clear relationship - they are polar opposites.), and our effort to replace one with the other. (That’s easy - bring the troops home. No soldiers, no war - it could not be simpler.)
These questions are not new. War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease - the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences. (Wars, all wars, then and now, from ants though chimpanzees to humans, are fundamentally about resources. All the other justifications are a smoke screen to hide war’s true purpose.)
Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence. (By those criteria, both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are unjust.)
For most of history, this concept of just war was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations - total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred. In the span of thirty years, such carnage would twice engulf this continent. And while it is hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished. (The percentage of civilians killed to soldiers killed has risen in every war since. In Iraq and Afghanistan civilians constitute the vast majority of the casualties.)
In the wake of such destruction, and with the advent of the nuclear age, it became clear to victor and vanquished alike that the world needed institutions to prevent another World War. And so, a quarter century after the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations - an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this Prize - America led the world 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, and restrict the most dangerous weapons. (The most dangerous weapons would be nuclear weapons, which the U.S., under Obama, continues to develop.)
In many ways, these efforts succeeded. Yes, terrible wars have been fought, and atrocities committed. But there has been no Third World War. (It is estimated that 70 million people died as a result of war during the 20th century. In this century, the Iraq war alone has already claimed well over a million victims. At any one time there are some 25 armed conflicts going on in the world. How much worse would it have to be before you could say that these efforts failed?) The Cold War ended with jubilant crowds dismantling a wall. Commerce has stitched much of the world together. Billions have been lifted from poverty. (Which billions exactly? The number of people in poverty worldwide continues to grow.) The ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced. We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.
A decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers (The world should continue to shudder. Russia’s nuclear weapons are still targeted on the U.S. and vice versa. Nothing has changed in that regard.), but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale. (Outsized rage? Given the horrible atrocities the U.S. has committed, sanctioned and supported in the Middle East and Central Asia, the rage of the people of those regions would seem perfectly justified. Modern technology also allows powerful militaries to murder innocents on a horrific scale. What’s the difference?)
Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. (These wars are, in many cases, stoked by other nations, like the U.S. The violent conflict in Central Africa over Coltan would be a good example. In addition, the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of arms, fueling violent conflict around the globe.) The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states; have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sewn, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred. (This sounds a lot like an admission that he will do all of these things in Afghanistan.)
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. (With 30,000 additional U.S. troops on their way to Afghanistan and with the C.I.A. having been given authorization for an increase in drone attacks on Pakistan, that’s a gross understatement.) What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. (Not only will we not eradicate violent conflict, but due to population growth, dwindling resources and global warming, violent conflict, quite predictably, will grow much worse. In addition to these growing pressures, as mentioned above, the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of arms.) There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. (With the true motives for the U.S. entering World War II seriously in doubt, when exactly was the last time a nation found the use of force to be justified?)
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." (So, either Obama disbelieves Martin Luther King, or he is choosing to create “new and more complicated” problems.) As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. (But he has apparently chosen to go with violence and brutality anyway.) I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. (He just has no use for their creeds.)
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation (No, Obama is not sworn to protect and defend the nation. In the oath of office taken by all military personnel, law enforcement personnel and elected officials, including the president, the only thing they swear to protect and defend is the U.S. Constitution. With his illegal bombing of Pakistan, Obama violated the U.S. Constitution only three days into his term, and has continued his violations against it since.), I cannot be guided by their examples alone. (What evidence is there that Obama has been guided by Gandhi or King in any way whatsoever?) I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. (Our own intelligence services, plus many military officers, have warned that U. S. Actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are increasing, not decreasing the threat of terrorism.) For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. (Afghani and Pakistani victims of U.S. aggression are certainly aware of this already.) A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. (Since we have not negotiated with al Qaeda, how exactly do we know this?) To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower. (An even cursory examination of U.S. actions and behavior over the past 50 years makes this reflexive suspicion more than justified. How many countries have we bombed or invaded? How many innocent civilians have we killed? How many governments have we overthrown?)
Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions - not just treaties and declarations - that brought stability to a post-World War II world. 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. (Stability? If by underwriting global security you mean invading and bombing more countries than anybody else, racking up a bigger body count than any other nation, spending more on war than any other nation, building up a bigger arsenal of nuclear weapons than anybody else, overthrowing more democratically-elected governments than anybody else, and supporting more brutal dictators than anybody else - check the numbers - then the U.S. has done a great job.) The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea (Leaving aside World War II, and forgetting the devastation we rained down on Korea, the section of the world stretching from Korea to Germany is a fairly small piece of the planet. What about Southeast Asia? What about Central America?), and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans (Like Afghanistan, the Balkans is the site of a proposed natural gas pipeline). We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. (Is he serious? As an empire, the concerns of the U.S have not been for the citizens of the world, but for maintaining a favorable atmosphere for U.S. business interests.) We have done so out of enlightened self-interest (Meaning that U.S. corporations wanted the oil, natural gas, tin, bauxite, agricultural land, etc.) - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren (So that they can consume the world’s resources in an even more profligate manner than we do now.), and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity. (If U.S. leaders believed that, they would stop supporting brutal dictators that oppress their people and keep them in poverty for the sake of enriching themselves and foreign corporations.)
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. (So I guess Martin Luther King was wrong?) And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. (The U.S. is already responsible for in excess of one million deaths just in Iraq. Millions more Iraqis have been turned into refugees and it is estimated that half of the children of Iraq are now orphans.). The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country (Soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting in illegal wars. They are in violation of international law, U.S. law and the military’s own Uniform Code of Military Justice. How is behaving like a criminal full of glory, and how does it show devotion to country when you are violating its constitution, the constitution you swore to “protect and defend”?), to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such. (Except that as a nation, we always do trumpet it as glorious.)
So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary (It’s certainly sometimes necessary if you want to steal another country’s resources.), and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. (Greed, prejudice, revenge, hatred, grief - all the good ones.) Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." (Like the World Criminal Court that the U.S. refuses to join, or the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Charter that the U.S. refuses to obey or enforce?)
What might this evolution look like? What might these practical steps be? (See comment immediately above.)
To begin with, I believe that all nations - strong and weak alike - must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I - like any head of state - reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. (So which is it? Does he believe that the nations must adhere to standards that govern the use of force, or that heads of state have the right to act unilaterally to defend their nation? Pick one, but only one. And what does he mean by “defend”. Afghanistan did not attack us. The world already has a long list of really good, comprehensive laws, treaties and conventions designed to regulate the use of force by nations. The problem is when powerful countries like the U.S. choose to ignore them and do what they please.) Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakens - those who don't. (It isolates and weakens less powerful nations that don’t adhere to standards, but when powerful nations like the U.S. don’t adhere to standards, there are virtually no consequences.)
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, (Even within the U.S., 59% of the population does not support the war on Afghanistan and believes we should be withdrawing the troops. Worldwide sentiment is similar, so where is this “world” to which Obama refers?) because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. (The “recognized principle of self-defense” refers to an attack by another nation - which certainly does not fit the case with Afghanistan. The events of 9/11 were a crime, albeit a big one, but not an attack by another nation. Crimes are normally investigated by the police, and the perpetrators apprehended and put on trial. Of course, given the scientifically proven presence of thermite in the collapsed World Trade Center towers, a criminal investigation of 9/11 would have proven very embarrassing, to say the least) Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait (Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait along with the rise in world sentiment against him is a case study in U.S. manipulation, complete with giant public relations firms contracted by the U.S. government to manufacture evidence and sentiment against Hussein) - a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression. (To all, with the exception of powerful rogue nations like the U.S.)
Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. (However, that is just exactly what the U.S. does - again, and again, and again.) For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention - no matter how justified.
This becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. (Is he referring to the theft of natural resources - oil, for example?) More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government (So why does the U.S., more than any other nation, continue to supply weapons to brutal undemocratic regimes intending to use those weapons against their own populations? Colombia would be one example among many.), or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans (Remember the pipeline. The energy industry actually maintains a website called “Balkans Natural Gas Pipeline News”.), or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace. (Responsible nations have already embraced that concept. They’re called United Nations peace-keeping forces - not the U.S. Army or Marines, and not NATO forces.)
America's commitment to global security will never waiver. (I think he meant America’s commitment to global insecurity.) But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan (natural gas pipelines). This is true in failed states like Somalia (lots of oil), where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come. (Yes, sadly, as the world’s supplies of oil and natural gas dwindle, we can expect to be fighting “terrorism” for a long time to come in terrorism/oil and natural gas hotspots around the globe - Nigeria, Sudan, Colombia, Venezuela, Iran. The geographical overlap of fossil fuel reserves and terrorism hotspots is really quite remarkable. Undoubtedly, it’s just a coincidence.)
The leaders and soldiers of NATO countries - and other friends and allies - demonstrate this truth through the capacity and courage they have shown in Afghanistan. But in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts (By “efforts” he means homicidal acts.) of those who serve and the ambivalence (And by “ambivalence” he means anti-war sentiment.) of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular. (Despite his expressed belief in democracy, Obama clearly doesn’t care that 59% of the American people want us out of Afghanistan.) But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. (Unlike war, which requires total irresponsibility.) Peace entails sacrifice. (Unlike war, which entails a willingness to sacrifice others.) That is why NATO continues to be indispensable. (As a war-making institution, NATO has no problem with sacrificing others.) That is why we must strengthen UN and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. (Is he suggesting the United Nations join in the drone attacks on Pakistan?) That is why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad (Obama can speak for himself. Personally, I don’t honor baby-killers and international criminals.) to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali - we honor them not as makers of war, but as wagers of peace. (Up is down, in is out, black is white. If we want our troops to wage peace, we should try outfitting them shovels and plows rather than assault rifles and tanks. It’s really hard to dig wells and sanitary latrines with an assault rifle, and equally hard to wipe out wedding parties with a plow.)
Let me make one final point about the use of force. Even as we make difficult decisions about going to war, we must also think clearly about how we fight it. The Nobel Committee recognized this truth in awarding its first prize for peace to Henry Dunant - the founder of the Red Cross, and a driving force behind the Geneva Conventions.
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. (In the prosecution of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s hard for me to think of an important international rule of conduct that the U.S. has not violated. From using banned weapons to intentionally attacking hospitals and ambulances to intentionally destroying civilian infrastructure, to torturing prisoners, the list of war crimes just goes on and on.) And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules (Unlike the U.S.?), I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. (Yes, by all means, the U.S. must remain a standard bearer in the exercise of unspeakable violence and brutality. If we are to have a total breakdown in civility, which is what war is, the U.S. should certainly be setting the standards.) That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. (I thought the difference was that they use car bombs and we drop ours from 20,000 feet.) That is a source of our strength. (And not the more than half a trillion dollars a year we spend on the military?) That is why I prohibited torture. (But continue to allow other countries to do the torturing of U.S. prisoners for us.) That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. (The prison at Guantanamo continues to this day to function as it did under George Bush, with the deadlines for its closure repeatedly pushed back. Official torturing of prisoners has ended there, but prisoner abuse is reportedly even worse now than under Bush. Obama also fails to mention the recently remodeled and expanded prison at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan, where increased numbers of prisoners will be held outside of U.S. law and beyond the U.S. Supreme Court decision that restored habeas corpus rights to the prisoners at Guantanamo.) And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. (The Geneva Conventions obligate Obama to investigate and bring before courts those individuals “alleged to have committed , or to have ordered to be committed” grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The grave breaches, like torture, are war crimes, and the individuals concerned include George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, among many others.) We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. (Contrary to the popular myth, the U.S. is not fighting to defend ideals, it is fighting for hegemony, plain and simple, just like always.) And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.
I have spoken to the questions that must weigh on our minds and our hearts as we choose to wage war. But let me turn now to our effort to avoid such tragic choices, and speak of three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.
First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior - for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. (Does that include the U.S. and Israel, or would those two countries be given a waiver? This is the same Obama who only weeks earlier was involved in trying to suppress the results of a United Nations report stating that Israel committed war crimes in its attack on Gaza last winter.) Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure - and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one. (So are we all going to get together now to pressure Israel into compliance with international law?)
One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: all will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work toward disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I am working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia's nuclear stockpiles. (Yet the U.S. under Obama is going ahead with a Bush administration program increasing nuclear weapons production. The “complex modernization” initiative would expand two existing nuclear sites to produce new bomb parts. The administration is proposing to build new plutonium pits at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico and expand enriched uranium processing at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)
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 claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. (What laws, exactly, has Iran flouted? Iran, unlike the U.S., and contrary to the perception fostered by the corporate media, is in complete compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. (Then maybe we should be pressuring Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons? And maybe we shouldn’t be helping the Indian government to develop new nuclear weapons?) Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war. (Nations like the U.S.?)
The same principle applies to those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur (Think oil, yet again); systematic rape in Congo (Think Coltan); or repression in Burma (Think natural gas) - there must be consequences. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.
This brings me to a second point - the nature of the peace that we seek. For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.
It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.
And yet all too often, these words are ignored. In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists - a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values. (In the words of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, “the United States government pays lip service to the declaration, but its courts have consistently refused to enforce its provisions, reasoning it is not a legally binding treaty, or contract, but only a declaration.”)
I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely (Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is currently trying to silence two agency lawyers expressing their concerns over the Obama administration’s plans to use a cap and trade program to fight climate change.) or worship as they please; choose their own leaders (Obama’s administration is implicated in the recent overthrow of the democratically elected president of Honduras.) or assemble without fear. (The violence and brutality of the police poses a serious threat to peaceful protestors throughout the U.S. as well as within virtually every other so-called developed, democratic country. In Denmark, where Obama will speak later this week, a new law was just passed in response to the current climate protests there, giving police the right to arrest people for what amounts to “thoughtcrime”.) Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy (No, instead we covertly topple democracies - Iran, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti, just to name a few. John Stockwell, formerly of the C.I.A., estimates that the C.I.A. has helped overthrow twenty democratically elected governments.), and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. (Analyses that have been done of U.S. foreign aid spending show a clear pattern, with aid flowing disproportionately to countries that brutalize their citizens, such as Colombia and Egypt, two of our largest recipients of foreign aid.) No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests - nor the world's -are served by the denial of human aspirations. (Denying human aspirations is one of the principal ways in which U.S.-based multinational corporations advance their interests - interests that the U.S government vigorously protects. That’s what globalization and so-called “free trade” is all about. Weak environmental laws are exploited to pollute the air and poison the water and weak labor protections are exploited to set up sweatshops where workers toil under slave-like conditions to produce goods sold in the U.S.)
So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. (What about the people of Gaza, or Honduras? What about the role the U.S. played in fomenting unrest during Iran’s recent elections?) It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these movements that hope and history are on their side. (So why has Obama not stood with the people of Honduras in their attempts to return illegally ousted President Zelaya to power? One thing that history makes abundantly clear is that the U.S. is almost always on the wrong side in these peoples’ struggles. No only does the U.S. support dictators and oppressive right wing regimes, providing them with the money and arms they need to oppress their people, but when that is not enough to get the job done, the U.S. is prepared to step in and take a more personal role.)
Let me also say this: the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach - and condemnation without discussion - can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.
In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, Nixon's meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable - and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty, and connected to open societies. (They are connected primarily through the consumer goods for the U.S. that they produce in their sweatshops. Do $3 per day wages at a sweatshop count as being “lifted from poverty”?) Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There is no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.
Third, a just peace includes not only civil and political rights - it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.
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. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. (Security exists just fine in traditional societies completely lacking in the formal education or jobs to which Obama refers.) The absence of hope can rot a society from within.
And that is why helping farmers feed their own people (That concept is in direct contradiction to the official policies of the U.S. government, which aggressively pushes and supports corporate-controlled export agriculture.) - or nations educate their children and care for the sick (The structural adjustment loans pushed by the U.S. on other countries have had the effect of gutting spending on education and health care.) - is not mere charity. It is also why the world must come together to confront climate change. (Based on the behavior of U.S. negotiators, the U.S. has been and continues to be far and away the biggest impediment to nations coming together to confront climate change. The current negotiations in Copenhagen are a perfect example of that.) There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, famine and mass displacement that will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful action - it is military leaders in my country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance. (Of course, the military’s response to climate change has absolutely nothing to do with reducing emissions of CO2. The military’s current role as basically an oil protection force should give you some hint of how they will respond to climate change.)
Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All of these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more - and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.
As the world grows smaller, 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.
And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization (aggressively promoted by the U.S. government), and the cultural leveling of modernity (aggressively promoted by multinational corporations backed by the U.S. government), it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities - their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. (This is a conflict fueled in large part by the unquestioning support of the U.S. for the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel.) We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.
Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents (When was the last time the U.S. military rode into battle without claiming to have God on its side?) by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam (Like the U.S. troops who have defiled the Koran?), and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. (Not even one of the alleged 9/11 attackers came from Afghanistan, with the majority coming from Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally. A more critical look at the available scientific evidence suggests that we should be looking much closer to home for those responsible for 9/11.) These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. (As are the many, many cruelties of U.S. military campaigns in foreign lands.) But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint - no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic (Apparently that is equally true for resource wars as in Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. bombs and bullets have killed countless pregnant women and quite a few medics.), or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith - for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Despite that, religion has been used as the justification for countless wars throughout history.)
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. (Adhering to the law of love while simultaneously following our deep-seated biological urge to expand our societies by confiscating the land and resources of our neighbors.) We are fallible. (We are biological beings. We can do our best to control our biological instincts, but don’t expect a lot of help from Mother Nature.) We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached - their faith in human progress - must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith - if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace - then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass. (One might fairly say that a president prosecuting two wars, responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, holding innocent people in prisons where they are brutalized by guards, sending other people off to countries where they will be tortured for the U.S. and backing corporations over people at every turn has already lost his moral compass - if, in fact, he ever had one.)
Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him."
So let us reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. (Is he talking about the Taliban, who have clearly stated that their only desire is to drive foreign occupiers from Afghanistan, outgunned by the most powerful military in the history of the world?) Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. (Is he talking about the hundreds and thousands of non-violent anti-war protestors beaten and brutalized by police in the U.S.?) Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.
Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. (Strive for peace by sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to kill still more innocent women and children in Afghanistan.) We can do that - for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.