Friday, December 11, 2009

Two Errors in Obama's Nobel Speech

“…Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” said President Obama, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace on December 10. That fact was a stark incongruity that framed the speech and which made it an almost impossible situation for him. Yet it is that very incongruity that will make the speech endure. School children will read it for generations precisely because it eloquently addresses the inherent tension between peace and war.

He did far better than could have been expected under the circumstance, and delivered a very articulate speech on the topic of peace while commanding armies at war, still, I thought he said two wrong things.

One was his assertion of the universality of American values, which is a myopic, self-centered view. Obama listed “the” iconic American values as if they were automatically universal human truths: defense of human rights, the ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law, and so forth. In fact, not all people and not all governments embrace these values (obviously) which are very far from being universal human values. They just happen to be things that we believe are good. There are other ways to live. Obama does not try to force these values down the throats of others, as G.W. Bush often did, but to list them as universal virtues without qualification is an error that reveals a surprising blind spot.

The second wrong thing Obama said was that “…Evil does exist in the world.” It is true, as he explained, “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.” These “small men with outsize rage,” as he called them, cannot be spoken to. Unfortunately they must be killed, in self-defense. That is the sad reality. But that does not imply they are evil. It just means we are unable to talk with them because of utterly incompatible world views.

If a rabid dog attacks you, you may have to kill it, but that does not make the dog evil. It just means that, regrettably, you have no other method of communication. This is a distinction I thought Obama would be familiar with, and I was surprised to hear him invoke the Manichaeism that G.W. was so fond of. It is an erroneous and dangerous way to characterize your enemy.

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