Friday, December 11, 2009

Reflections on Obama's Nobel speech

I don't have all that much to add to Carl's post. Suffice it to say that I thought it was a fantastic speech comparable to the best he's ever given, including last year's speech on race in Philadelphia. (Video below.)

We can argue over the particulars, over the substance, but the speech revealed Obama to be, well, what we knew he was, which is as close to a genuine philosopher as we are likely to get in the White House, a man of profound thought who wrestles with some of the key issues facing America and the world today -- issues of war and peace, of life and death -- some of the issues that have been central to the human condition from the very beginning.

Allow me to quote a few commentators who, in my view, got it right:

[T]his may have been the deepest and most elegaic speech of Obama's presidency. But what a strange one it was. Obama is a man trapped amongst the contradictions created by America's awkward place in the post-Bush world...

The rest of Obama's speech was movingly inspirational. Having conceded that war can't be wished away, Obama laid out a vision of human nature and progress that is fundamental to his view of the world.

See also Jonathan Chait on Obama's "foreign policy worldview."

[T]his was a very good and serious speech, which like many of his major addresses -- the Inaugural address, the one in Prague about nuclear weapons, the one in Cairo on relations with the Islamic world -- will stand re-reading and close inspection, and which shared an obvious intellectual and structural architecture with all his other major addresses. Those trademark elements include:

The embrace of contradictions (in this case, a defense of war as a means to peace); the long view; the emphasis on institution-building; the concern about the distortion of religious and ethnic loyalties; and above all a consciousness that was once called Niebuhrian and at this rate will someday be "Obamian," which emphasizes the importance of steady steps forward in an inevitably flawed world.

That was our president today and I couldn't have been prouder. Unflinching, reversing the muddled message of last week, once again regaining the moral authority of why we fight... Today's speech unraveling last week's tangled rhetorical mess that had Pres. Obama talking about 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, which I remain against, while simultaneously talking about a draw down by July 2011, which came off cravenly political, while ignoring the importance of why we're in Afghanistan, which is in large part humanitarian, and the genesis of what brought us there.

The speech today begins a righting of what went terribly wrong on Obama's Afghanistan strategy speech. The tone and content was pitch perfect, including the bravery of taking on whether he deserves the Nobel or not.

This is not to say -- and I must stress this -- that I agreed with everything in the speech. Like Chait, I found Obama's discussion of genocide weak. What is needed there is an aggressive commitment to fight genocide, as in Darfur, not just a desire to stand together in righteous opposition to it. And while I appreciate the careful distinction between just and unjust wars, and while the Afghan War may for a time have been just, I continue to oppose Obama's Afghan surge, the 30,000-troop increase he announced just last week, and to think that the Afghan War is not just unwinnable but untenable, that the U.S. and its NATO would do well to withdraw now and to give up on the unlikely possibility of achieving political and social stability in that country, keeping some military presence in the region to target Taliban and al Qaeda forces. (I'm not against nation-building, as I was not against the Afghan War early on. I just don't think it makes much sense to stay there without a clear purpose and achievable goal.)

And yet, I found the tension in the speech between realism and idealism, with Obama searching for the right balance, compelling and persuasive. Indeed, what the speech revealed is that Obama gets it -- maybe not in policy terms, where there is room for disagreement, but in philosophical terms, which is deeply reassuring. It just remains to be seen whether Obama can find that right balance by reconciling the contradictions, if that is even possible, and then whether he can actually translate his Niebuhrianism into a cohesive foreign policy that adequately addresses not just the Iraq and Afghan wars but Iran, North Korea, Darfur, and the world's other hotspots, the myriad challenges facing America, including global terrorism.

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