The President and the Nobel
Above the Fold
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
–Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside Church, 1967
“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”
–President Barack Obama, Oslo, 2009
Barack Obama gave the best speech he could last week–given the fact that he had decided to expand the war in Afghanistan just ten days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He nodded to Gandhi and quoted the speech Martin Luther King gave when he accepted the Nobel : “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”
Obama added, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”
It’s true that presidents do not have the same freedom of action as civil rights leaders. But it is also true that Martin Luther King’s decision to oppose to the War in Vietnam was one of the best and most important things he ever did–even though it brought him the opprobrium of practically the entire white liberal establishment at the time.
Just like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has chosen to commit American blood and treasure to a deeply corrupt government which lacks the support of most of his citizens, without any real plan for victory, or even much of a benchmark for success. And in Obama’s latest speech we also hear another echo of LBJ, who was forever invoking the ghost of appeasement in Europe in the 1930’s as a reason for American adventurism in the 1960’s: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” Obama declared in Oslo.
It is Obama, rather than his critics, who has misread the historical lessons of Vietnam. Here, I believe, we are paying a serious price for having elected a president who is too young to have any adult memories of Vietnam.
Naturally, Obama tried hard to put the best face on America’s infatuation with war:
“Whatever 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. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. 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 others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
Obama also said, “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” That’s true, but our closest friends also include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many other governments which are famously contemptuous of the rights of their citizens.
But the biggest part of recent American history Obama needed to ignore to portray us as democracy’s defender is our shameful role as chief arms merchant to the world. Not since Jimmy Carter was president has anyone made even a cursory effort to restrain American arms makers from selling their most expensive weapons to many of the poorest nations in the world.
Only once in the last thirty years did the world pay any attention to the consequences of the fervent competition among the developed nations to sell every tank and missile and airplane they can to the undeveloped ones. That occurred after Saddam Hussein’s remarkably quick and successful invasion of Kuwait.
As one historian has noted:
Observers were initially struck by the speed and brazenness of the invasion, which could only be viewed as a willful violation of international law. But another aspect of the invasion also sparked international attention: the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped with very large numbers of sophisticated weapons that had been obtained from foreign suppliers. During the previous eight years Iraq had spent an estimated $43 billion on imported weapons, giving it the most modern and powerful arsenal of any nation in the developing world. Many of these arms were supplied by the Soviet Union (long Iraq’s major supplier), but others were acquired from France and other Western countries. This led to widespread charges that the major suppliers bore some degree of responsibility for Iraq’s aggressive behavior, in that they had provided the means for mounting the 1990 invasion.
In the aftermath of Kuwait, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met twice in 1991 and pledged to develop new controls on the international arms trade. But before the next scheduled meeting of the group of five took place in 1992, to formalize the restrictions, the first president Bush decided sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. A furious China withdrew from the negotiations, which gave everyone else an excuse to boycott them–and they have never been revived since.
During the administration of the second President Bush, foreign arms sales exploded–from $12 billion in 2005 to $32 billion in 2008. As Eric Lipton noted in a fine story in The New York Times last year,
The United States has long been the top arms supplier to the world. In the past several years, however, the list of nations that rely on the United States as a primary source of major weapons systems has greatly expanded. Among the recent additions are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan, according to sales data through the end of last month provided by the Department of Defense. Cumulatively, these countries signed $870 million worth of arms deals with the United States from 2001 to 2004. For the past four fiscal years, that total has been $13.8 billion. In many cases, these sales represent a cultural shift, as nations like Romania, Poland and Morocco, which have long relied on Russian-made MIG-17 fighter jets, are now buying new F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin.
This is just the tip of the military-industrial complex Obama confronts as president, and he has gotten practically no pressure from anyone to confront it head on.
The key moment in the Afghanistan debate occurred in London at the end of September when General Stanley McChrystal rejected the possibility of scaling back the American war effort there. This was a clear act of insubordination, which, in another time and place, would have led to the general’s firing.
That, of course, is the way Harry Truman dealt with General Douglas MacArthur when he ignored the president’s wishes during the Korean War.
But this time no one ever thought McChrystal would be fired. Justin Feldman, the wisest political analyst I know, observed that if Defense Secretary Robert Gates had responded to the London speech the way he should have–by firing McChrystal–Obama would at least have had the option of rejecting his demand for tens of thousands of additional troops. “Obama was boxed in politically as a new president,” Feldman said. “He has too much on his plate–and if Gates wouldn’t fire McChrystal, Obama couldn’t afford to have Gates and McChrystal bail out on him.”
So instead of the dramatic change so many of us hoped for when we cast our ballots for president 13 months ago, when it comes to war and peace, it seems we will mostly continue to see more of the same.
Leo Siqueira of Brazil’s canal da imprensa interviews FCP about Obama here.