(42) – Obama’s Nobel Prize Speech Revisited (4 Dec 2012)

     Washington has a problem with Europeans. They do not do enough. Notwithstanding the help it gets from European NATO officials concerned with their position in the scheme of things, they only very reluctantly send soldiers to Afghanistan. They are frequently upbraided for being deficient in their attitude toward war making in general, as if wars were not sometimes necessary. In his widely sold Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan chided the European Union for its failure to acknowledge that it could only live in its beautiful and peaceful ‘postmodern’ garden because the US was patrolling the street outside and making sure that robbers did not break in. The neocons started this line of thinking, but along with other neocon assumptions it has spread through America’s journalistic bloodstream.
     Something else nags at the more articulate American minds: Europeans acting morally superior ever since their clumsy previous president made them feel ashamed of their own country. The fact that Europeans “love Obama”, a frequently repeated observation in his first term, was reason in rightwing circles to be suspicious of both Obama and the Europeans. A sentiment that spilled over into the mainstream media. Anyone of their own – leave alone their own president – ‘apologizing’ for the United States was about the last thing Americans, even liberals, wished to witness.
     True enough, a great sigh of relief went through Europe when Obama became president; I can still hear it. What was felt to be a deliverance prompted the Nobel Peace Prize committee to give him their prize in advance, an honor he earned by not being George W. Bush. At the private dinner after the award ceremony, one of the four Norwegian women on the committee (there was one man on it) effused that the women of the world adored Obama and that “women know best”. But when Obama accepted the prize he came up with the same nonsensical fiction of a necessary war as had been authored by Bush.
     At the beginning of his second term, with drone warfare having so far killed some two and a half thousand people and his new presidential ‘kill lists’ on top of the ravaging that Bush left behind, it is useful to read Obama’s Nobel speech again to grasp what is continuous in the reasoning behind America’s belligerency.
     Obama had a problem because the Norwegians gave him the Nobel roughly at the same time as he was revving up the fighting in Afghanistan and expanding it to Pakistan. But his solution was to make his words revolve around the theme of ‘just war’; the use of force that sometimes is “not only necessary but morally justified”.
We all know that argument, and it is usually made by invoking Hitler. Which is what Obama did as well. “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 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.
     Obama, so it has become clear with the passing of time, has no qualms about insulting the intelligence of his audience. In this case he was more specifically insulting the moral intelligence of Europeans. Is Al Qaeda comparable to Hitler? Besides which he was not fighting Al Qaeda, but Pushtun tribesmen who want Americans out of their country. General James Jones, Obama’s own national security advisor at the beginning of his presidency, confirmed that Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, in the maximum estimate, had diminished to “less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” Even then, some of what Obama said might have made a tiny bit of sense if the threat to the United States from Pushtun fighters in Afghanistan were real. It is not, and his audience knew that.
     But the particular ‘just war’ against those Afghans and Pakistanis has a sliver of ‘justice’ about it for the purposes of presidential rhetoric, when it can be fitted within a more universal abstraction. What could you be fighting for as you justify the expense, dead and wounded to your own citizens and your alleged allies when the Taleban utterly lacks any means to attack the United States or Europe, and has no motives for such an attack? Nothing less than spreading morality.
     The core of Obama’s Nobel speech was the notion of ‘evil’. This packs highly seductive rhetorical power since hardly anyone can be against fighting it. Evil does exist, yes, but how do you apply a concept that belongs to religious discourse as you grade practical political action? How to evaluate the degree of ‘evil’ represented by roadside bombs with which the Taleban try to make Americans and allies leave their country compared to the wanton wiping out of an entire city – Fallujah – in Iraq?
     What the Nobel speech did for Obama’s prestige at home was one thing that the rightwing and liberal hawks, as well as quite a number of moderate liberals, could agree on: At least he did not go to Europe to ‘apologize’ for America! I read that several times as I followed the editorial comment at the time.
     When our thoughts wander to the main motives for the cultivation of an enemy mythology, what immediately comes into view are the material ones. Fortunes and business power are involved in the stimulation of fear and paranoia; huge revenues for weapon makers and the new security industries that directly profit from having enemies. The out-of-control institution of the American military industrial complex keeps it all going.
     But in the national imagination profit-making does not justify war.
     America’s warmaking in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have had much merit in the popular mind if it did not meet with some spiritual demand. Obama looked after that at the Nobel award ceremonies. The fight is about fundamental morality. The opponents, so it should be clear by now, may be human, but exist in quite a different category of humanity than we, as the good guys, find ourselves in, one ruled by a devilish force. Countries that have been moved into the enemy category are automatically assumed to be led by tyrants who carry out evil for its own sake. That adversaries might have valid strategic concerns is beyond the pale of acceptable discourse.
     Deep-seated assumptions that keep American enemy fantasies in circulation are of religious origin. They link with the notion of sinfulness. What many well-read Americans heard in the Nobel speech, were echoes of Reinhold Niebuhr, a thinker who Obama did not mention, but who had clearly supplied some of the language. Niebuhr, a prominent theologian, one of the most thoughtful the United States has produced, was also an important political theorist and a major contributor to the so-called realist school of International Relations. He is much admired for a partial career devoted to the promotion of social justice. Originally a socialist and a pacifist, the second World War made him formulate how and when war was sometimes justified. The criteria Niebuhr came up with have remained influential in the United States today. He applied the tenets of his Protestantism to political life, and started from the premise that nations like individuals are sinful. Murderous conflict amongst them is therefore explicable as it is consistent with the fact of evil being fundamental to human life. Without sin, no war.
     Having enemies serves a deeper need of the American nation than the Peace Prize committee may have thought. They provide certainty, moral certainty, a security of the soul. In an unstable life environment with much uncertainty, you at least know who the bad guys are. The George W. Bush administration and the neocons, as well as Obama, were tapping into an atavistic vein of the American tradition, as they invoked a struggle against the forces of evil. Those are, in the imagination of many Americans, aggressively and unrelentingly present in the outside world. And the fight against them can hardly be valiant enough, witness the new terrorist dangers, witness the uppity Putin, but also, and not in the least, witness the slackened American will to hold the line.
     A majority of Americans would of course not fully endorse the extreme assumptions of the writers who warn against the threat to the West. But the accusation of ‘softness’ in the face of foreign evildoers resonates with more common assumptions that do not appear extreme. When an American president or Congress member responds to what happens in the world, or initiates something that has a worldwide effect, they must stay within the bounds of what a de-facto nationalistic common opinion will find acceptable. An American shared sense of national security is wrapped up with abovementioned notions supplying moral certainty. It means that politicians may make political hay by ‘doing the right thing’ about adversaries that do not in actual fact exist; they will have to prove their political bona fides that way, as ritualistically as they had to be anti-communist during the Cold War.
Ira Chernus, an author who deserves to be more widely read, neatly sums it up: “As long as our notions of security are built on the myth of well-meaning Americans versus ever-threatening evildoers who embody original sin, we can never dispense with the evildoers. They are as necessary in U.S. foreign policy as sin is in Niebuhr’s theology. They always have to be out there threatening us, in our imaginations at least, in order for our pursuit of national security to make any sense at all.”
     Obama once told a columnist that Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers. Which does not necessarily mean that he has read him all that carefully. Reinhold Niebuhr most famously warned against American hubris, of the ‘Messianic dream’ that the Calvinist Puritan Settlers in New England had brought along with them, infecting American foreign policy with lofty visions of a God-given mission to be an example to a sinful world. Niebuhr warned of calamities that might befall his country because of its “dreams of managing history” and policies borne of hubris, of hypocrisy and self-delusion.
     His influence on American international relations thinking proved insufficient when exceptionalist temptations were no longer curbed by the Cold War enemy. But his ‘just war’ ideas have provided a salve for the conscience of Americans who, with the onset of warmaking under George W. Bush, experience the actions of their country as a moral load on their shoulders.
     The American enthusiasts for war today, be they ‘liberal hawks’, neocons or politicians asked to make a public choice, have given a crucial twist to Niebuhr’s version of political realism. For them the fundamental sinfulness he talks about does not apply to the United States. The monsters to be destroyed are external ones, all of them. This is taken for granted in recent mainstream writing about the subject.
     It was not always thus. During the 1960s strong opinion in conflict with that arrogance florished. Hippies, radicals and anti-war activists, angered by the war in Vietnam, attacked their own country vehemently for its hypocrisy. The outright rejection of the assumption that the United States is driven by respectable motives, very common in Vietnam war days, has now become rare. Few Americans are prepared publicly to declare the ‘war on terrorism’ to be based on utter nonsense.
     When the communist enemy disappeared, a spiritual no man’s land opened up. The confusion and uncertainty this caused were lifted when terrorists, and the ‘rogue states’ believed to be helping them, suddenly came to occupy that no man’s land. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, once contender for nomination as a presidential candidate, summed things up when he said that moral stability was the cultural payoff of the war on terrorism.
     Do not take that lightly. The broad American public may dislike war, but the zealots are selling it with appeals to its morality-cleansing properties. The ‘threat to the West’ authors have shifted emphasis from the material damage of flattened radio-active cities to the more abstract danger of moral damage and the spiritual catastrophe engendered by undermined values. The emphasis on the enemy not sharing ‘our values’ makes the national security story a personal matter. The neocon founders Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz used the foreign threat theme to inveigh against what they saw as moral turpitude at home. Most neocons, even while not religious themselves, have subscribed to the more general rightwing contention that the United States has lost its spiritual bearings, or is in grave danger of doing so within the foreseeable future, because of the rising tide of moral relativism caused by anti-religious secularism. The widely published columnist, Charles Krauthammer, sees the aggressive unilateralism introduced by George W. Bush as a possible medicine. He thinks that if the United States becomes confident enough to define international morality on its own terms and exercises its strength accordingly, this will be a substitute for the religious revival necessary to stop the engine of social breakdown; i.e. the skepticism and pleasure oriented American mass culture.
     Moral relativism will lead to defeat in the perspective of the ‘threat to the West’ activists. They have long decided that Europe is deficient. In a speech to military cadets, Obama refers to the European dislike for war, as he reiterates that the United States cannot fight the good fight on its own. Europeans are used to exemplify the crisis in the spiritual health of Western civilization, since they do not take the threat of Islamic terrorism seriously enough, they have not understood that civilizations will clash, and their politicians are ready to compromise ‘Western values’ as they accommodate the Muslims among their voters. European populations have become too secular and too lazy to defend themselves. This fear mongering includes the warning that indigenous Europeans are not making enough babies. The Muslims who have come to live in European countries are. Eventually, therefore, several countries may get Muslim majorities. A new term, ‘Eurabia’, has been coined to predict the horrific situation awaiting Europeans when that happens.
     The islamic world must be taught democracy, and efforts must be made to make China and Russia see the light as well. And force may be justified with all that, especially when human rights are seen to be violated.
     A distillation of this nonsense has, through persistent Atlanticism and the American news filter, spilled over into Europe as well. The NATO member governments who have joined the fighting in Afghanistan have justified this to their publics by claiming that preventing the return of the Taleban is connected with safety at home. If evil is not stopped at the Hindu Kush, it will eventually cross the Danube and the Rhine. European intellectuals have made very little effort to analyse to any depth what the American fearmongers have actually been saying, and therefore lack an understanding of the nonsensical implications of current American foreign policy inspired by such imagery.
     A year before Obama’s Nobel speech, former top defense officials of Britain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States, took the initiative to reformulate what NATO ought to do against the threat to the West. Their book presented the familiar litany of how Iran wants to wipe out Israel and how China has the temerity to compete with Western interests in Africa, among the dangers facing the world. They came out in favor of using nuclear weapons, if need be, to stop other countries from developing weapons of mass destruction, a point obviously aimed at Iran.
     What these former NATO generals, with a reputation to lose, plead for in substance is a military response to foreign ideas; ideas that question Western supremacy and power. They present those ideas as ‘extremist’, irrational, and aimed at destroying Western values. As they implicitly claim a moral monopoly of the use of violence for The West, without regard of others’ sovereignty, they reject the very concept of international law. In the words of Germany’s former chief of Defense, “we cannot survive … confronted with people who do not share our values, who unfortunately are in the majority in terms of numbers, and who are extremely hungry for success”. These generals and incumbent politicians were educated to take Western supremacy for granted, and new post-Cold-War international developments have created uncertainties that escape their intellectual ability to tackle, because these uncertainties resist classification in familiar Cold War categories. History no longer provides unshakeable truths. These former NATO generals are talking, literally, in terms of a “restoration of its certainties” as a condition for the security of the West.
     The tragic irony of the Nobel Peace Prize commission’s decision is how it has helped further undermine the principle of sovereignty. Peace and sovereignty are interdependent. Officially so, ever since 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia. But in a paradoxical development, the demise of the Soviet Union also set off the gradual demise of that principle. When the taken-for-granted restraints on American power, imposed by the existence of a power rival, were removed, it stopped being inviolable.
     Countries are not endowed with sovereignty, they have to earn it, so says Richard Haass, who was director of foreign policy planning during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, and president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He formulated a relevant double moral standard for ratification: countries earn sovereignty through the way their governments behave themselves at home as judged by the United States.
     What conditional sovereignty theorists like him appear not to see – quite aside from the spuriousness of alleged threats – is that under current circumstances the process in all this can only lead to fixed outcomes determined by an arbiter who has picked the guilty in advance. The ‘civilized West’ is expected to make the proper decisions, which means that for practical purposes the American military-security-industrial complex will call the shots. So far, we have seen a lot of arbitrariness. Rwanda and Zimbabwe and Sudan and Burma, no, but Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, yes. If the acceptability of a country’s domestic conduct may be gauged from what is being said about it in the highest political circles, and from what the public gets to know through the media, Venezuela has to be judged as not deserving any sovereignty.
     A double standard is built into the mindset inherited from Cold War days. Few few Americans or Atlanticists in Europe doubted that because of its moral high standing the West had a moral right to do things for which the other side did not have a similar moral right. The difference that deserves our attention is that it could not be applied with military action during the actual Cold War. That would have been much too dangerous.