Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Peace Prize’

After accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Barak Obama delivered a speech in which he attempted to justify his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Then, on a more positive note, he presented his vision for achieving just and lasting peace in the world. He argued that we must work on three different fronts if we are to reach that Promised Land: (1) Use nonviolent means to discipline rogue nations; (2) Ensure respect for fundamental human rights; (3) Provide economic security and opportunity.

Basically, the President explained that if we can get these three ingredients and mix them together, the result will be wonderful, delicious peace. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with each of these ingredients, problems that President Obama did not discuss in his speech. But despair not! It turns out that the problems can be resolved.  In fact, if we look closely at each ingredient, it is possible to find the solutions to their problematic aspects with the help of some of the implications of Obama’s own words. Even though Obama himself did not explicitly mention these implications, all we have to do is to carry his line of thinking a little further! Let’s examine his three points one by one.

Explaining the point about rogue nations, Obama said:

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 actually 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. 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.

Yes!  Who could disagree with such an obvious prerequisite for building a just and peaceful world? No society can tolerate deviant or criminal behavior from one of its members without endangering its very integrity; the same holds true for the world as a whole. In the contemporary context, the voice of the international community can be heard loud and clear in the chambers of the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. Regimes that violate the consensus of the international community are obviously endangering world’s peace; there has to be a mechanism for holding them accountable for breaking the rules, and, in the interest of peace, that mechanism must not involve bombing and destruction.

Obama says that all nations should follow certain rules and laws, but every now and then some nation refuses to do so. That nation must be punished. So far so good. But what happens when the regime that is violating the consensus of the international community is so powerful that the latter dares not hold it accountable? Or the regime is able to use both carrot and stick to persuade enough members of the international community to keep their mouths shut? Or, if everything else fails, the regime simply ignores the cries and screams of the world and goes on flagrantly defying the rules of acceptable behavior? Alternatively, what if the regime that is accused of violating the consensus of the international community is so week that it is unable to get everyone to listen to its own side of the story?  What if some members of the international community gang up against that regime and make so much noise that the accused can no longer expect a fair hearing? What if some of the rules were made in such a way as to favor only a few nations and that, in order to get justice, a particularly disadvantaged nation has no recourse other than breaking those rules?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say? Of course, he would not say that powerful nations ought to enjoy an exemption from the rules and laws that everyone else is required to follow; nor would he say that it is fair to make rules that favor some against the other. Americans have a long history of resisting such brazen violations of fairplay in their own legislative and judicial systems; one would expect that they would never allow such violations to become acceptable norms in the international system either. Consequently, Obama would agree that the world needs fool-proof mechanisms to prevent such injustices, similar to the checks and balances that have been placed in the American systems of government and law. Obama is, after all, a trained lawyer himself; he not only understands the importance of justice but he is also well aware of the many ways in which justice can be bypassed or corrupted by the rich and the powerful.

The solution, then, is obvious: the United Nations must be reorganized so that mutually agreed-upon principles, rules of conduct, and moral standards are always upheld, even — and especially — when they go against the wishes of the powerful. This, in turn, requires that all nations accept equality before the law and agree to follow the international consensus. Violators will face nonviolent punishment commensurate with their crimes, and they will be strictly prohibited from using their economic, military, or diplomatic power to avoid their just penalties.

On the relationship between peace and human rights, Obama said:

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 on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.  . . . .  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. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence.

Again, the President is absolutely correct. Violence erupts when people’s basic needs are not met for a long time. When we work to ensure that everyone is able to meet their basic needs and secure their fundamental human rights, we are, in effect, working for peace. The absence of overt conflict is merely “negative peace.” On the other hand, “positive peace” is characterized by a state of justice and fairness.  We can establish “negative peace” through violence or threats of violence, but such a peace is precarious and unstable; it has no foundation to stand upon and so it does not last very long. The peace that lasts is always the result of social and political justice; people are unlikely to resort to violence if no one denies their rights and no one stops them from fulfilling their needs.

Again, there are a few problems. What happens when the interests of a particular nation are in conflict with the needs and rights of another nation or group of people? What if one nation believes that it has a right to self-determination, but another, more powerful, nation refuses to cooperate on the grounds that this would violate its own interests? What if a particular regime is known to violate the human rights of its own population, but the continuation of this regime’s rule happens to be in the interest of another, more powerful nation? What if the interests of a particular nation are such that they require the uprooting of indigenous communities all over the world or the exploitation of children half way across the globe or the irreversible destruction of the natural environment?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say?  Obviously, he would not say that the interests of a particular regime can trump the basic needs and rights of a people; nor would he say that the stock value of a corporation can have more worth than the life-style of an indigenous community, nor that the Dow Jones has a greater right to protection than the need of a far away people to enjoy clean air and drinkable water. Obama would also reject the notion that it is fair to destroy the world’s climate for the sake of some abstraction called “economic growth.” Instead, Obama is most likely to agree that all the nations of the world must submit to the principle that human rights take precedence over the interests of any state or corporation. If a nation violates this principle, it ought to be held accountable at the international level and forced to pay reparations or suffer appropriate penalties.

Finally, Obama made his point about economic security:

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.

How true!  It is impossible to have a just and lasting peace in the world if the economic needs of large number of people are not being met, or if large number of people are living under constant anxiety about their financial future, or, worse, if they don’t even know whether they would have anything to eat tomorrow. In the absence of economic security, people are likely to feel that they have nothing to lose, they have nothing to hope for, and they have no personal stake in the society and its structures. Such a mindset can easily breed violence. Similarly, if people do not experience at least some fairness in term of economic opportunities, they are also likely to turn towards violence. A society that does not provide more or less equal economic opportunities to all its members would inevitably create classes of extremely rich and extremely poor, a situation that would lead to resentment, anger, and frustrations . . . and therefore violence. A fair and equitable distribution of wealth is an essential prerequisite for world peace.

Let’s look at the problems associated with this statement. What happens if certain societies are prevented by external forces to provide economic security to their members? What if the economic prosperity of some societies result directly from the economic exploitation of other societies? What if the level of economic opportunity enjoyed by a certain proportion of humankind requires that the same level of opportunities be denied to the rest of the world? What if the style of consumption in some societies is such that it necessitates stealing the life chances of a significant part of humanity? What if the resulting anguish and violence does not remain confined at the local level but spills over into the global arena? What if all the people of the world start demanding the same quality of economic security and the same opportunities for economic development as enjoyed by the richest of the rich? What if the planet cannot provide sufficient natural resources to meet such a demand?

How would Obama respond if we were to raise problems like these? Having already admitted that peace results at least partly from economic security and opportunity, he cannot say that large proportions of the world’s population can be kept in abject poverty or even in relative deprivation without such a situation causing serious threats to world peace. He would also understand that the rate of consumption characteristic of the industrialized West, particularly the United States, is so high that it is simply incapable of being universalized. Currently, the oil consumption in the United States is about 24.8 barrels per day per person; it is about 1.9 barrels in China and 0.8 barrels in India. If the Chinese and the Indians start demanding the same level of economic security and opportunity as that of the United States, it is doubtful if the earth would be able to spit out enough black gold to quench their thirst. Obama would understand that since the standard of consumption cannot be elevated to the same level for the entire human population, the only way to ensure a more or less equitable distribution of economic goods would be for the richest of the rich to accept a considerably lower level of consumption. As Gandhi is reported to have said, live simply so that others may simply live.

There you have it.  Obama’s three-point agenda for achieving a just and lasting peace! The plan demands that the United States take a leadership role in order to: (1) Make the United Nations truly effective by establishing de facto equality for all the member states; (2) Establish the principle of zero tolerance for human rights violations; (3) Reduce the standard of living in rich countries and raise it in poor countries until they meet at a sustainable middle.

Of course, it would be foolish to expect such things from the US President. Despite the rumors, Obama is no Messiah. But it does go to his credit that he has, at least, given us the recipe for world peace. Better yet, he has given us his own standards on which his administration’s conduct will be judged.

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In his Oslo speech delivered after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the US President Barak Obama emphasized the need for warring nations–especially the United States of America–to follow the rules of war. These rules, sometimes collectively referred to as jus in bello, deal with the limits of morally acceptable conduct between belligerent parties during periods of armed hostility.  In the contemporary context, nations are bound by specific rules governing the humanitarian treatment of war victims; these rules are found in the four Geneva Conventions (1864; 1906:1929; 1949) and the three additional protocols (1977; 1977; 2005), as well as the two Hague Conventions (1899; 1907) and other internationally recognized documents.  President Obama was referring to these very rules in his Oslo speech.  In emphasizing this point, however, the President also managed to make three additional claims that deserve closer scrutiny.  Here is what he said:

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.  And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war.  That is what makes us different from those whom we fight.  That is a source of our strength.

At this point in the speech, Obama had already established to his own satisfaction that the use of violent force is sometimes acceptable, even morally imperative.  Leaving aside that discussion for another day, let us focus here on the question of the rules that govern wartime conduct.

Obama acknowledges that there are, indeed, “certain rules of conduct” that govern the behavior of warring nations; he then goes on to contend that the United States has “a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves” to those rules.  This wording says a great deal about Obama’s ethical reasoning . . . perhaps more than he wants to reveal.  Notice the word “interest.”  Obama is saying that the United States should follow the rules of war because it is in our “interest” to do so.  This may have been an appropriate argument in front of the US Congress, but it was out of place at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.  Given the international nature of that forum, Obama’s assertion of “our interest” appears both rude and imperialistic.  But perhaps that was exactly what he wanted to convey, and he did so in a manner that was considerably more pleasant, sophisticated, and palatable to his audience in Oslo than the clumsy threats characteristic of the previous occupant of the White House.

In addition to the word “interest,” Obama’s use of the phrase “binding ourselves” is also significant.  It implies that any constraint on our (i.e., United States’) wartime behavior can only be the result of our own voluntary decision, rather than the result of international pressure, criticism, or judgment.  Read this statement in the context of the US refusal to join the International Criminal Court.  We are, effectively, our own judge . . . and we shall always find ourselves “not guilty.”

Obama’s message to the international community was sweet and clear: Don’t think that we are agreeing to follow the rules of war because we owe you anything, or that you have any influence on our policies and decisions, or that we are recognizing any standard on which you can hold us accountable that is higher than our own self-defined “interest.”

There is, of course, a place for “interest” in any ethical reasoning, but it would be a highly volatile, not to mention dangerous, foundation for the moral commitments of world’s most powerful nation.  After all, anything can be justified in the name of “our interest.”  What happens to the Geneva or the Hague Conventions when someone determines that it is no longer in our “interest” to follow them?  The answer seems obvious.  These conventions would meet the same fate as that of the countless treaties that the White settlers had signed with Native Americans.  As a nation with a Manifest Destiny, we lost interest in those pieces of paper.

Obama’s use of the word “interest” is deliberate.  To be fair, it would be wrong to target the President as if he were a monster, an aberration in a nation of saints.  The mindset behind the sacred idea of “our interest” represents the general sense of entitlement that many Americans hold as one of the basic tenets of our civil religion.  Obviously, all nations are expected to keep their own “interest” at the forefront of decision-making; what makes the United States stands out in the international community is that we, literally, stand far above the laws that lesser countries must abide by.  We can hold them responsible for not following the rules and even punish them at will, but they are in no position to hold us accountable in the same way.  Even the vast majority of the nations of the world, acting together, cannot make us agree to what they belive is the right thing to do, so long as we determine that it is not in “our interest.”  The history of our use of the veto in the United Nations Security Council is a case in point.  We are supremely able to defend “our interest” in a manner that no one else can, which is a good definition of a “superpower.”

The trouble with this state of affairs is that we routinely defend and promote “our interest” in ways that destroy the chances of other nations to do the same with their “interests.”  More recently, we have been safeguarding “our interests” even at the expense of the planet.  We would rather hold on to “our interests” than ensure that the earth survives as a habitable place for humans and other living beings.  It’s like we are standing with loaded guns in our hands and preventing anyone from trespassing our luxury suite . . . when that luxury suite happens to be located on a sinking Titanic.

It is strange that Obama linked the idea of “interest” with the adjective “moral.”  What, exactly, is the “moral interest” of a nation?  Who is the moral voice of a nation?  More importantly, what makes the state the sole interpreter and custodian of a nation’s “moral interest”?  The idea of our “strategic interest,” on the other hand, makes somewhat better sense, being an abstraction that usually goes by the name “national interest” and seems to be almost worshipped as the highest form of good.  We are willing to sacrifice any moral standard, any ethical value, any commitment, any promise, and any treaty if we decide that holding on to it would hurt our “national interest.”  On the other hand, virtually any policy measure, however unpopular inside or outside the country, can be adopted if we decide that it will promote our “national interest.”  We are still refusing to sign or ratify such international agreements as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Criminal Court, the Convention against Enforced Disappearance, the Mines Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty . . .  for one reason or another, all these seem to threaten our “national interest.”  Compared to these, however, our behavior at the recent UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen broke all records of imperial hubris.  Apparently, we follow the rules on two conditions: first, we should be making the rules, and, second, the rules must serve “our interest.”  Too bad Obama did not say this in Oslo . . . but then again he didn’t need to.

Moving on to Obama’s second claim, that “we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules.”  By the phrase “vicious adversary” the President is presumably referring to the so-called “terrorists” against whom the United States has been waging war at least since 9/11.  There are, obviously, individuals and groups that are determined to harm American lives, and perhaps it is even fair to call them “vicious.”  It is also obvious that such individuals and groups must be prevented from carrying out their murderous intentions.  The problem, however, is located in Obama’s claim that this “vicious adversary” does not abide by any rules.  In fact, Obama argues that this is precisely what makes us different from our enemies.  What distinguishes us from them is simply that we abide by the rules of war and they do not.

What, exactly, are these “rules” that we obey but they do not?  Obama did not elaborate on this subject, but one would guess from the rest of his speech that he was referring to the internationally accepted rules of wartime conduct as found in the major agreements and treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions.  The “terrorists” that Obama is talking about, however, are entities that function either below or above the level of nation-states.  These entities have never signed the Geneva Conventions nor have they requested to join the United Nations as sovereign states.  On what grounds do we expect them to abide by our rules?

There is, on the other hand, a sense in which the “terrorists” do, in fact, abide by the same rules as we do.  At the core of the International Humanitarian Law is the requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to refrain from attacking or harming civilians.  Conventional wisdom says that violation of this core principle is what constitutes “terrorism.”  The problem, of course, is that even the most powerful and sophisticated militaries in the world have serious difficulty following this principle.

The last sentence was an understatement.

In referring to the “rules,” Obama may have in mind some fundamental difference between how terrorists operate and how the military of a modern nation-state operates.  As I tried to show in a previous series of postings (Religion and Organized Violence), no such difference actually exists.  There are some trivial contrasts, of course, such as the soldier wears a uniform while the terrorist wears civilian clothing, or that a soldier drops or throws a bomb while a terrorist plants a bomb.  On the other hand, we can identify a number of crucial points on which these two sides are very much in agreement.  The terrorist and the soldier are identical in their adherence to the following — usually unacknowledged — assumptions:

  • The only power worth having is the power to destroy.
  • The side that kills more people is usually the side that wins.
  • An essential discontinuity exists between us and them.
  • We are morally superior, which makes them unworthy of life.
  • Sometimes you must sacrifice your own life for the sake of your people.
  • The more scared they are, the better they will listen to reason.
  • There is no such thing as too much violence.
  • The only language they understand is the language of force.
  • An abstraction can be more real than flesh-and-blood human beings.
  • There are no innocent people on the other side.
  • If my cause is just, I can do nothing wrong in serving it.
  • Destruction is sometimes necessary for renewing the world.
  • Killing can be the highest expression of altruistic love for one’s people.
  • My duty is to listen and obey, and I do not question my superiors.

The only significant difference that I can think of at this moment is the difference in scale.  The soldiers of a nation-state are capable of causing harm and destruction on a colossal scale, one that the “terrorists” can only watch with awe and envy but can never hope to achieve themselves.  Indeed, if “terrorism” is defined as the deliberate cultivation of overwhelming fear in a given population in order to obtain its obedience, then the nation-state must be acknowledged as one of the topmost perpetrators.  Restricting the word “terrorist” to non-state entities obfuscates the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of terrorizing acts are traceable to the modern state.  Edward S. Herman uses an alternative vocabulary to expose what he calls “the absurdity of this definitional system.”  He argues that terrorism comes in two forms, “retail” and “wholesale.”  According to Herman, “Dissident individuals and groups kill on a retail basis (that is, on a small scale, with limited technological resources to kill and with small numbers of victims); states kill wholesale.”

Finally, let’s consider Obama’s third claim.  He argues that our commitment to follow the rules makes us strong vis-a-vis those who refuse to do so.  We abide by the rules, the President asserts, and this fact is a “source of our strength,” and, he seems to imply, a source of weakness for the adversary.  Given that our abiding by the rules does not give us any overt military advantage, one would think that the President is referring not to material strength but to moral and/or spiritual strength.  He is telling us that we are not only different from our enemies, but also, and more to the point, we are better.  We are, in other words, morally and spiritually superior to the “terrorists” because we are committed to following the rules whereas they have no such commitment.  It’s not only that our cause is just; we ourselves are just too.  By contrast, their cause (if they have any) is clearly unjust, and since they obviously don’t follow the rules, this makes them unjust as well . . .  in effect, “vicious.”

This claim is supposed to make us feel better; it is meant to show an improvement over the previous President’s policies, who is said to have broken many rules.  And yet, the dichotomous good vs. evil scenario of George W. Bush is alive and well in the much more educated vocabulary of the new President.  We are fighting evil, which makes us good by definition.  They are vicious, which makes us gentle by contrast.  We abide by the rules, which clearly makes them the worst kind of rule-breakers.  We are everything they are not.  It’s Cowboys and Indians all over again.

Strangely enough, the words that we use to condemn them are the same words that they use to condemn us.  However, if the above list of basic assumptions shared by the terrorist and the soldier is any indication of the reality of violent conflict, then claims of moral superiority should be seen as the very fuel that helps keep the flames of violence going.  The belief that “we are better than them” is not a legitimate justification for the use of violence; it is, on the contrary, part of the causal chain that generates and maintains the violent conflict.

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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.

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