Why Obama’s speech betrays an important legacy

Politics, US — By Cliff Albright on December 16, 2009 at 06:00

I was actually asleep when a friend called me and told me to turn on President Obama’s acceptance speech the other day. She was troubled by his remarks, and after a few minutes, I understood why. To be sure, it was a well prepared, well delivered speech. Nevertheless, the substance of the speech was troubling to those of us who feel that a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech ought to be an occasion to talk about… what’s the word… peace.

President Obama’s speech, which has been almost universally recognized as a justification for war, has won praise from conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. I’ve even heard that former Vice President Cheney has declared a one-week verbal truce in honor of Obama’s ode to warfare.

To a large extent, the speech was simply a function of his job description. As he reminded us, he is the Commander in Chief of the United States, and at the end of the day, that position is going to shape his global perspective more than his global perspective is going to shape that position. It’s the same position that Lyndon B. Johnson held when Dr. Martin Luther King stated that America was “the greatest purveyor of violence anywhere in the world.” Nevertheless, was Oslo really the most appropriate venue for a “just war” treatise, and was it really necessary to dedicate two thirds of his speech to it?

Of course, President Obama’s speech was not only about justifying war. He managed to throw in just enough paragraphs to keep at least some progressives happy. For example, he had several lines talking about letting “our faith in human progress” guide us, and about how we should reach for “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” You can’t really argue with any of that.

(AP Photo Bjorn Sigurdson/ Scanpix Norway, Pool)

(AP Photo Bjorn Sigurdson/ Scanpix Norway, Pool)

However, a speech that began with justifying war and ended with humanity’s search for peace could have had a meaningful sweet spot in the middle. President Obama could have more adequately acknowledged that in between his concept of a just war and the concept of world peace, there’s a whole lot of space for some very real, very pragmatic alternatives to war. Yes, he briefly addressed alternatives to violence and the need for international development, but does he really feel that such a discussion is only worth two minutes?

By minimizing the very hard and real possibilities of negotiating peace, President Obama betrayed the legacies of two of his more relevant Nobel predecessors: Dr. Ralph Bunche and Dr. King. It was not romantic idealism that guided Ralph Bunche in 1948 as he worked to end the armed conflict in Palestine. After several months, Dr. Bunche was able to negotiate a series of armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors, and his efforts earned him the 1950 Nobel Prize. Like President Obama, Dr. Bunche understood that the world was a complicated place, but that did not stop him from believing that war could be avoided.

Years later, Dr. King would receive the Nobel Prize for a different form of negotiation. The Civil Rights Movement, which obviously was bigger than just Dr. King, and which relied on thousands of unsung heroes and sheroes, was not just about getting beat up and thrown in jail. Fundamentally, it was about using whatever power you have in order to force your enemy to negotiate, even when that power is limited to your faith, your morality and your bodies.

Contrary to the dichotomy that President Obama tried to impose during his speech, the question is not whether non-violent marches and sit-ins are enough to solve all of the conflicts in the world today. After all, President Obama has far more power and far more non-violent options at his disposal than the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement had. Thus, the more appropriate question is whether leaders of the world in general, and President Obama in particular, are as committed to fully exploring non-violent options before embarking on war.

Coincidentally, although he has yet to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Rev. Jesse Jackson has also demonstrated the power of negotiation globally. Over the years, Jesse has managed to obtain the release of hostages from Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia, and he was able to do so with no weapon other than his legitimate voice as an emissary for peace.

Thus, African-Americans have a history of championing non-violence and negotiation on the world stage. True enough, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have damaged that legacy in recent years, but in Oslo, President Obama could have done much to help restore order to the universe.

Instead of just reminding us rhetorically that he is “someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work” and that he is a “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” Obama could have presented a new vision for incorporating that moral force into today’s complicated matters of international relations. In short, Obama could have elevated diplomacy from the depths of “appeasement” and bureaucratic irrelevance to the heights of being a force for change in today’s real world.

In doing so, not only would Obama have been true to Dr. King’s beliefs, but he would have been true to his own beliefs as well—beliefs that he expressed during the presidential election campaign. Certainly we all remember Candidate Obama’s statements about being willing to talk with world leaders with whom the United States has serious disagreements. And much of his criticism about the Iraq War centered around his belief that diplomacy was not given enough time to work its course.

As a presidential candidate, Obama could only float ideas about what he might do, but now, as president, Obama can actually implement his ideas. And Thursday, as a Nobel Prize winner, the president could have used the world stage he was provided in order to elaborate on those ideas. He could have used his thirty six minutes to outline a new paradigm of diplomacy. Being the student of history that he is, he could have outlined the most important examples of diplomacy that have worked, and then he could have challenged the world’s leaders, friends and foes, to renew their commitment to such efforts. In short, Obama could have raised the bar.

Instead, he used the world’s most respected peace forum as a platform from which to outline an Obama Doctrine that sounds a heck of a lot like the Bush Doctrine. In doing so, he failed to demonstrate much change, and whatever hope he provided has been relegated to idealism. Of course, he still has at least three years to demonstrate with his actions what he was unwilling to express with his words. Hopefully, during that time, the Nobel Prize sitting in his office will be a constant reminder to reject “the ‘isness’ of man’s current nature” and to seek out “the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

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Author: Cliff Albright (7 Articles)

Cliff Albright

Cliff Albright is a writer and political consultant. He has been a community activist for twenty years, focusing on race, politics and economic development, and he's hosted a radio talk show. Cliff has an MBA and a master’s degree in Africana Studies from Cornell. He has taught Black Studies at several colleges and universities, including currently at Georgia State University.

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