President Barak Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, delivering a speech that was almost equally admired by Jon Stewart and Sarah Palin! Given the fact that the President is an eloquent speaker and chooses his words very carefully, we may assume that (like Horton the Elephant) he means what he says and says what he means.
Obama obviously said something important and relevant in his Oslo speech, or he wouldn’t have received adulation from opposite sides of the political spectrum. So what did he say?
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
Let’s break this argument down into its constituent parts. The President agrees with the assumption of his audience — given the occasion of his remarks — that to “eradicate violent conflict” is a highly desirable goal. He then suggests that it is not a goal that can be achieved during the lifetimes of those who are alive today. Apparently, some people are refusing to acknowledge this inconvenient reality, and the President wants to correct them. While eradicating violent conflict from the world is a noble aim, says Obama, we must face the “hard truth,” i.e., that such an eradication cannot happen in the near future.
“We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” How does Obama know this? He doesn’t say. One would guess that the claim is not open to question, since it is not a conclusion that the President seems to have reached on either rational or empirical grounds, but is more like an article of faith. The notion that violent conflict cannot be eradicated “in our lifetimes” — let’s say in the next eighty to hundred years — is something that he simply assumes as an axiomatic truth.
Alternatively, Obama may have derived this idea from the “Christian Realism” of his favorite theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr had emphasized the “fallen” state of humanity, teaching that the weakness and wickedness of human beings must not be ignored or underestimated. Later in the acceptance speech, Obama does say something along these lines: “For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil.” He is right, of course. But if it is the fallibility of human nature that prevents us from eradicating violent conflict, then we cannot say that this goal is unachievable “in our lifetimes.” We must acknowledge the even harder truth, i.e., that violent conflict can never be eradicated, period. I will say more on this issue later.
Whether he subscribes to the “hard truth” or the “harder truth,” Obama seems to base his justification for military escalation in Afghanistan (and his right to do so anywhere else in the world) on the supposed impossibility of eradicating violent conflict. Because we cannot eradicate violent conflict, therefore the use of violent force may sometimes be deemed “necessary” or even “morally justified.” The problem with this argument is glaringly obvious. How can we ever hope to eradicate violent conflict without first deciding not to participate in such conflicts? How can the existence of violent conflict be the reason for escalating them even further or starting entirely new ones? How can the existence of addiction be the reason for continuing to take the addictive substance? How can the existence of evil be the reason for acting in evil ways? If anything, the exact opposite would be true in each of these cases.
“We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” This is President Obama’s foundational assumption which he never bothers to prove; yet, the claim is neither self-evident nor defensible as a scientific fact. Based on science alone, one may predict the behavior of chemical compounds, billiard balls, or planets, but it is an entirely different matter to predict the future behavior of such complex and dynamic systems as human beings. Obama’s claim leaves out the crucial element of human free will — the fact that people must make innumerable choices each day in order to keep things going in a certain way, and that if they were to start making different choices then radically different things will start happening. Scientifically speaking, of course, one may predict that “violent conflict will remain in the world if the current trends continue,” but even this statement is fraught with problems. Exactly which trends are we looking at? There is a massive peace movement all over the world; looking at the progress of the peace movement, couldn’t we say, with equal confidence, that “there will be no violent conflict left in the world if the current trends continue”? On what grounds does the President take a pessimistic stance? Why is there no mention of “hope and change” when it comes to violent conflict?
Obama’s assumption, then, is not a neutral appraisal of reality. It is, on the contrary, a projection on to the future of a selectively perceived understanding of present reality, which raises several legitimate questions: Whose perception of reality is being privileged here? What kind of interests are served by projecting this particular version of present reality on to the future? What are the consequences of assuming that violent conflict will not be eradicated in our lifetimes? Furthermore, the assumption has a strong self-fulfilling element. To say that violent conflict is not going to go away is akin to telling a first-grade classroom that girls will always be weak in mathematics, or telling athletes that it is impossible to run a mile in less than a minute, or (and Obama might understand this one) telling a group of American kids that a black man cannot become President of the United States.
Barriers have to be broken first in the mental world before they can be overcome in the physical or social world. One has to imagine a possibility — dream it — before one can effectively work towards realizing it in practice. To insist a priori that something is impossible is the surest way of discouraging people from taking appropriate action, which is what one would do if one’s aim were to prevent the dream’s realization. In this context, Obama’s foundational assumption is nothing short of a major barrier to peace . . . regardless of whether it exists in his mind or in the minds of millions of other “realists” around the globe. The expectation of violence is precisely what justifies preparation for violence, and it is the preparation for violence that, in turn, justifies the use of violence, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle. By insisting that violent conflict will remain a worldwide reality during the next eighty or hundred years, by trying to convince everyone that “No, We Cannot,” Obama gives himself the permission as well as the moral authority to continue the policies of his predecessor.
“We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Perhaps the President is not being cynical or sinister when he makes this statement; perhaps there is some truth here that we are missing. What if the sentence is meant to be understood literally? Instead of expressing humankind’s inability to eradicate violent conflict, perhaps this sentence is conveying the US President’s unwillingness to do so. According to this interpretation, it’s not so much that we cannot eradicate violent conflict but that we don’t want to. Perhaps when Obama says “we will not . . .” he actually means it as a policy statement, a promise he intends to keep.
This reading is neither facetious nor farfetched. It might well be the most plausible one. On this reading, Obama is simply saying that we Americans have no intention of abolishing violent conflict, either in our own lifetimes or in the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren, for we have absolutely no need to do such a thing. In fact, a world free of violent conflict would be the worst case scenario for the United States. What would happen to our economy? Who would hire the millions of unemployed soldiers, military scientists, engineers, and contractors? How would we assert our domination over the rest of the world? Who would sell us cheap oil for our cars and airplanes and factories? How would we refuse paying reparations for damaging the climate? Who would buy our guns, tanks, bombs, and fighter jets? What a nightmare! Things are fine just the way they are; thank you very much. We are, after all, “the world’s sole military superpower,” as Obama reminds us in the same speech. If our military strength is unsurpassed, what do we stand to gain by eradicating violent conflict? So long as our team has the best players in the world, why would we give up playing the game?
Be that as it may, I would like to get back to the issue of human fallibility, weakness, and wickedness . . . the consequences of “the fall.” President Obama is emphatic in his acknowledgment that human beings are prone to making mistakes, that they fall victim to the temptations of pride, power, and evil. Who could disagree with the President on this point? Even a cursory perusal of human history would confirm this reality, as would watching TV news or reading newspapers on any given day. The fact is that people do commit evil deeds. From this indubitable truth, Obama somehow draws the conclusion that the acceptance of the necessity of using violent force is simply a sign of realism. Here is the quote.
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. . . . To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
If it is true that human beings are fallible by nature, wouldn’t it follow that American political and military leaders are not exempt from making mistakes, even terrible ones? If it is true that evil exists in the world, shouldn’t we assume that it exists in the White House and the Pentagon as well? If it is true that human beings fall victim to the temptations of pride and power, wouldn’t it be true as well that the most powerful leaders of the most powerful nation in the world would be most susceptible to such temptations? If the answer to these questions is in the affirmative — and it couldn’t be otherwise — then wouldn’t it be a colossal fallacy for us to justify the use of deadly force against a supposedly evil enemy without pausing for a moment to recognize the same evil within ourselves? And if we do recognize that evil within ourselves, how could we then feel comfortable and morally righteous in escalating a military conflict?
Obama’s premise is correct: human beings often act in evil ways. His conclusion, however, does not follow from his premise. To recognize the human potential for evil is to recognize it in all people — most importantly, it is to acknowledge our own potential for evil. The more we recognize that human beings are prone to error, the sharper would be our ability to catch our own mistakes. The more we acknowledge that human beings project their own negative tendencies on to others, the greater would be our capacity for self-knowledge and self-criticism. On the other hand, claiming that “evil does exist in the world” and then finding it only in one’s enemies is tantamount to not recognizing evil at all. If seeing the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye does not make a person sensitive to the plank in his or her own eye, then it is doubtful if one is actually seeing anything.
If a leader is really able to grasp the lessons of history, including “the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” he would be much less certain of the righteousness of his position and the justness of his cause. He wouldn’t view his own nation as completely innocent and its enemies as absolutely evil. A leader who recognizes human fallibility and folly and the reality of evil would be very reluctant to justify the use of violent force. Based on his speech in Oslo, it’s safe to say that President Obama is not that leader.