President Obama’s speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2009 has generally been reviewed in the US with much glow about its rhetorical heights and appreciation of its depth of thought. I did not watch Obama give this speech. Instead, I turned to the text which I could read at my leisure and without the speechifying fireworks that Obama has clearly mastered.
Although I seem stuck in a reflexive backward glance towards the eight disastrous years of Bush II whenever I evaluate Obama. I am still amazed at the enormous moral and practical abyss we fell through in those years. Obama brushing his teeth in the morning is reassuring in contrast. Nevertheless, it is worth looking a bit more closely at what Obama did and did not say here. Much has been said of his straight forward assertion that violence is necessary and even useful in a world inhabited by human beings who seem almost genetically predisposed to killing each other off. And, with the invocation of Martin Luther King and the discussion of just war theory, he covers well worn territory, though it is cheering to have a sitting US President talk in this fashion.
There is much to applaud in Obama’s speech: control of nuclear weapons, assertion of human and civil rights, multilaterialism in conflict resolution and enforcement, denial of religion as a justification for oppression of others.
But, we come to a significant claim, one that the US government has asserted for my entire lifetime, and which the US media and populace would support: “Whatever the 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.” And, Obama continues with the summary moral claim that underlies this assertion, “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 peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.” Continue reading