Monday, December 14, 2009

The Nobel Speech

Your Pianist hit a sour note, which he realized only after reading Andrew Sullivan's excellent piece ( about President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech.

That's why I deleted my blog, "Audacity sans Hope."  In it I wrote that the speech "did not lend itself to quick, facile analysis," whereupon my own attempt at analysis proved my point.

I have not reversed my opinion of the speech as oratory: it is a sublime example of the oratorical powers of our most eloquent President since Lincoln.  It was, as Sullivan wrote,  "written and spoken in such a way to reach anyone of any faith or none. . . . It was an expression of tragic hope."

I have reversed my opinion that his defense of war while accepting a prize for peace was an act of monumental hypocrisy.  Rereading the speech, for perhaps the fifth time, I have come to see it as an act of absolute candor, an honest acknowledgment of his own "difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other."

The key to understanding the speech is to understand this paragraph:

"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... For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.  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."

Even as an apostle of hope, in his pre-campaign writings, Mr. Obama was ever the pragmatist.  Sometimes progressives such as your Pianist found themselves so uplifted by his rhetoric of hope -- especially  during the last abysmal days of Bush -- that they did not hear his simultaneous warning about what's possible.

Sullivan writes, "Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice. As much a choice as faith and love."

Mr. Obama did not start these wars.  "Our actions matter," he said in Oslo, "and can bend history."  The wars launched by another President have bent the history with which he must deal, a history that hands him a terrible paradox.  On the one hand, no nation can be truly safe as long as there exist those who not only hate it with a suicidal passion, but also possess the wealth and the means to do it the kind of harm that the United States suffered on Sept. 11, 2001.  And so he must pursue Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and to do so he must also fight the Taliban.  In the context of the history he inherited, he can do no other.  Yet the very process of pursuing those goals, of eliminating those threats, builds new animosity toward America in the muslim world, gives birth to new terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, complicates his already labyrinthine task, and can make his acceptance of a peace prize while justifying war seem like hypocrisy.

It is not, for, as Sullivan wrote:  "(Obama) sees that the profound flaws in human nature affect 'us' as well as 'them'; that we "face the world as it is," not as we would like it to be; that the decision to go to war is a moral and a pragmatic one; that ends have to be balanced by a shrewd and sometimes cold-eyed assessment of means."

Obama's cold-eyed assessment of means has led to policies, or the continuation of old policies, that I still find abhorrent.  "All nations," he said in Oslo, "must adhere to standards that govern the use of force." There is call in his own use of force for not just assessment, but reform, to meet those governing standards.

Yet, all things considered, as an editorialist in Canada observed, the Nobel acceptance was "the right speech at the right time."

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