No Comment — December 15, 2009, 1:01 pm

A Noble Speech

I was in Europe meeting with a crowd of academics and NATO officers when Barack Obama delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. I had the impression that his speech was followed closely and received very well, but also that there was some anxiety over whether Obama’s conduct would match his words. That was particularly the case among those committed to the North Atlantic alliance—a military organization that has been the cornerstone of U.S. security efforts since the conclusion of World War II, and which today seems struggling for a purpose. Obama did not articulate a purpose for the alliance in his speech—it would indeed have been the wrong place and time for such a step—but he did begin to lay the foundations for that.

In the fantasy world of the American right, Europe is a zoo of the frivolous and feckless, filled with naïve pacifism and disrespect for America. In the real world, Europe cannot be profiled simply, but it has a complicated love-hate relationship with America and substantial concerns about its own security in a transformed threat environment. Europeans long for the America they came to love at the close of World War II, a nation prepared to act selflessly and in a principled way, and a nation that understood its position as a leader among nations it respected. They long for an Atlantic ally that is committed to lead and not act alone in half-baked military escapades. That is the Europe that picked Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize, out of a hope and expectation that he would forge renewed bonds of common purpose in seeking security—not because of any actual accomplishments in peace-making.

In America, Obama’s speech gained praise particularly from conservatives (aside of course, from the Cheneys). They seem genuinely surprised by Obama’s embrace of the use of force. In this perhaps the conservative pundits have slowly been freed from their own myth that Democrats are the party of flower children. In fact, of course, only a generation earlier, Republicans dismissed the “Democrat wars” and linked the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy to World War II, the Korean conflict, and Vietnam. But the vision of military might deployed as a great sword of democracy is consummately liberal in the political tradition of the English-speaking world. It is the vision of John Stuart Mill, for instance. The Obama speech is infused with that spirit, and also with the pragmatism of Max Weber, another liberal in a state that had tasted the bitterness of defeat, who struggled to define the imperative of political engagement. And it had hints of FDR, Wilson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as a quotation from John F. Kennedy, and threads from Obama’s Republican predecessors, such as Reagan and George W. Bush.

Obama is wielding these ideas and images in an effort to forge a new political consensus in America; he is consciously tipping his hat to the Republicans. While the past eight years present a point of confusion, this is precisely what a political leader should do. National security should be a point for consensus building. For the last decade it was instead conceived as a perfect arena for the partisan wedge, with destructive consequences.

The Obama speech is an impressive expedition into the idea of “just war” and the need for laws of war. “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations—total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.”

It dwells at length on the purpose and needs for these rules, and Obama’s ringing embrace of them could well be the speech’s highpoint:

To begin with, I believe that all nations– strong and weak alike– must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I– like any head of state– reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates– and weakens– those who don’t… America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention– no matter how justified…

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 that 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. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

I suspected when the award was first announced that this was the commitment that the Nobel Committee hoped Obama would deliver—a reaffirmation of American commitment to principle in the way it waged war. I suspect in the future Obama’s speech may be seen as a key step in the reanimation of the Atlantic Alliance.

But observers in America also have reason to challenge the depth and sincerity of Obama’s commitment. Fundamental to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, largely the product of an American vision of the humanitarian limits on war-making, is the concept that government officials who direct or have responsibility for grave breaches may not assert notions of domestic law immunity to shield themselves from accountability. When officials of Obama’s Justice Department file briefs in federal courts around the country asserting that the authors of policies of torture and the architects of secret prisons where torture was practiced are immune from accountability in court due to “extraordinary circumstances,” this makes a mockery of Obama’s pledge. When the Joint Special Operations Command is authorized to operate secret facilities at which prisoners are held and abused, free from the scrutiny of the Red Cross—as it now does at Guantanamo and Bagram—and when prisoners die under mysterious circumstances that strongly suggest homicide, and Obama stands by a pathetic excuse of a cover-up–his commitment to uphold Geneva can fairly be called into question. When senior officials responsible for detainee issues, whose own commitment to the Geneva principles is beyond question, suddenly resign without a coherent explanation, my worries grow.

Obama’s speech was powerful and persuasive. But I cannot free myself from doubts about Obama’s commitment. The past eight years impose on all of us a heavy moral burden. It requires us to admit and expose the unpleasant truth that may lie beneath the beautiful words.

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