"A narcissist's defense." As a description of Obama's Peace Prize speech, Macdonald's phrase could hardly be bettered. But the intense, near-pathological self-regard in the speech was not Obama's alone, of course; we must do him the credit of acknowledging that in this regard, at least, he was what we so often proclaim our leaders to be: the embodiment of the nation. His soaring proclamation of American exceptionalism, in a setting supposedly devoted to universal principles of peace, was breathtaking in its chutzpah – but entirely in keeping with the feelings of the vast majority of his countrymen, and the ruling elite above all.
Many have already remarked on Obama's adoption in the speech of Bush's principle of unilateral, "pre-emptive" military action, anytime, anywhere, whenever a leader declares his nation is under threat. This approach -- which Bush called "the path of action" -- was roundly scorned by critics of the former regime, many of whom now scramble to praise Obama's "nuanced" embrace of aggression. But again, let us give credit where it is due; in this aspect of the speech, Obama did in fact go beyond Bush's more narrowly nationalist conception, saying: "I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation."
Thus Obama would, apparently, extend the right of unilateral military action to "any head of state" that feels the necessity of defending his or her nation. But of course this is just empty verbiage, a pointless, bald-faced lie that not even Bush would have tried to get away with. Would Obama accept a unilateral, pre-emptive strike by Tehran against Israel, where legislators and government officials routinely talk of attacking Iran? Would Obama cheer the "right" of Russia to strike unilaterally at Poland if the U.S. "missile shield" deal, now on hold, was suddenly consummated? Would Obama support a unilateral strike by India at Pakistan -- or vice versa -- in the still-seething cauldron of tensions on the subcontinent, where both nations legitimately feel threatened by the other? Would he support the right of Kim Jong-il to "defend his nation" by attacking South Korea the next time there is a threatening border incident there?
No, it is clear that only the United States -- and its allies, like Israel -- are to be allowed the supreme privilege of unilateral war. The line was inserted in the speech simply because it would sound good in the moment, and create a temporary emotional reaction that might carry listeners past the macabre incongruity underlying the entire event: giving a peace award to the bloodstained leader of a military machine hip-deep in the coagulate gore of two, vast, civilian-slaughtering wars.
Obama staked his boldest claim to American exceptionalism with a passage that he lifted, almost verbatim, from his West Point speech just a few days before (see here
and especially here
), when he announced his second massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan:
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. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other people's children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
Here is chutzpah -- and hubris -- raised to the level of the sublime. Obama has taken the words he used to instigate the certain death of thousands of human beings and the acceleration of hatred, extremism, chaos and brutal corruption around the world -- and offered them as justification for the hideous, unabashedly Orwellian doctrine at the core of his speech: War is Peace. In this perverse inversion of values, Obama, as a warmaker, is actually a peacemaker, you see -- and thus a legitimate heir to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who was evoked at several points in the speech.
And here we come to what was for me the most revolting part of the speech. And perhaps the most significant too. All the cant about America's altruism and "enlightened self-interest" in killing millions of people -- Indochina was one of many convenient blank spots in Obama's historical survey-- for the sake of all the children of the world (red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in our sight) was just par for the rhetorical course. It was nothing that had not been said many times before, including the references -- so lauded by Obama's liberal apologists -- to those inadvertent "mistakes" America seems to keep making; out of a surfeit of good intentions, no doubt. But I don't think an American president has so openly and directly traduced the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before. (And to do it while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, no less! Oh, that sublime brass....)
Although larded with usual hyper-yet-flaccid, florid-yet-false oratorical stylings that have become Obama's trademark, his words about King and Gandhi drip with scorn and condescension. I was actually taken aback when I read these passages:
I make this statement [about the moral justification for war] 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." 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. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. 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. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.
The intellectual incoherence and arrogant sneering behind this supposedly laudatory passage is staggering. After claiming to be the personal embodiment of King and Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent action, Obama gives the game away with this line: "I face the world as it is." Those other two guys, they were just dreamers, they were unrealistic, they were unserious; they didn't "face the world as it is," they weren't savvy and pragmatic, like me. I have to go to war because I'm a head of state "sworn to protect and defend my nation."
[Here, Obama indulges in a trope that is pandemic among his apologists: the idea that he was somehow forced to become the head of a militarist state waging endless war around the world, that he has somehow woken up and found himself "the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." But of course he chose to pursue this kind of power in this kind of system -- chose it, pursued it, fought like hell to win it. It's what he wanted. Yet still this notion of Obama as a helpless victim of fate -- lost in a world he never made -- persists.]
He then goes on to give the lie to his previously stated admiration for Gandhi and King: "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." Thus, King, Gandhi and any practitioner of non-violent resistance to evil are, ultimately, naive, ineffectual -- weak.
Notice the incoherence – or perhaps deliberate elision – at work here. Obama says he must face down "threats to the American people" -- and then talks about Hitler's armies, immediately coupling, and rhetorically equating them, with al-Qaeda's scattered handful of hidden fugitives. Are the American people now threatened by Hitler's armies? Are al-Qaeda's paltry forces -- less than 100 of them in Afghanistan, according to Obama's own war-wagers -- the equal of Hitler's armies of millions of men?
But there is a deeper untruth beyond these cheap rhetorical tricks. For it is blatantly untrue to say that "a nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies." First of all, one cannot make that statement because this approach was never tried. Therefore you cannot say categorically that it would not have worked. Doubtless it would have cost millions of lives; but as Gandhi himself pointed out, the violent resistance to Hitler's armies also cost tens of millions of lives. But Obama's formulation -- which is a hackneyed one indeed -- only deals with one view of non-violent resistance to Hitler: i.e., from the outside, resisting his armies as they poured across the borders. There is another way in which a non-violent resistance movement without any doubt could have "halted Hitler's armies": if it had taken root and spread throughout Germany itself, including among the armed forces and its supporting industries.
In the event, this did not happen. But it was not, and is not, an impossibility for humankind to pursue such an approach. Therefore it is fatuous and false to state what cannot possibly be known: whether non-violent resistance would have thwarted Nazism, and whether this would have been more or less costly than the way of violence.
Similarly, it is false to say that "negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." The only response to this bald statement is: How do you know? Has anybody tried it? No. Therefore you cannot call it an impossibility -- and then use this supposed, untested "impossibility" as your justification for laying waste to whole nations. You may say that it would be unjust to negotiate with al-Qaeda, that those who use murderous violence to achieve their ends should simply be killed or prosecuted. (Although where would that leave the leaders of the exalted, exceptional, unilateral United States?) But of course this is precisely what Gandhi did: he sat down and negotiated with the representatives of an empire that had caused the deaths of millions of his own people. He negotiated with them in good faith, with good will, despite what they had done and were doing to his people -- and despite the fact that many of his interlocutors, such as Winston Churchill, hated him with a blind, racist fury. And he was successful -- although again, not without cost, both before and after the liberation. But Gandhi, and King, knew the costs of non-violence – because they were genuinely savvy, and genuinely realistic about the nature of evil.
In any case, aside from the particulars of any real situation or hypothetical scenario, the speech is a glaring example of Obama's deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) contempt for the path of peace, and its practitioners. It is also a manifestation of his own inferno, of his desperate need to justify -- to himself and to the world -- his free, deliberate choice to follow the blood-choked "path of action" as the commander-in-chief of a bloated, brutal war machine.
No one forced any of these decisions – or these specious, obscene justifications – on Obama or Blair. It is their own narcissism -- their own lust for power, and their love for the system that gave them that power – has covered them with the blood and shame that now taint their every word and deed.