Can a wartime president earn his Nobel peace prize while waging three wars at the same time?
Accepting a peace prize while ordering even more troops into battle was an audacious act. It was certainly in keeping with the spirit of President Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.
Hovering in the background of Obama’s speech was a movie moment from the 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan, the story ofa farm boy who was rescued, at great risk, from the front lines during World War II.
Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) was serving with the 101st Airborne Division, when he was dropped behind enemy lines.
When US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall learns that Ryan’s mother is scheduled to receive notices on the same day of the earlier battlefield deaths of three other sons, he gives orders to the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the 29th Infantry Division to find Private Ryan and bring him to safety. He is to be sent home as a comfort to his soon-to-be grieving mother.
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), successfully leads a squad of eight men on the rescue mission. Before Ryan returns home, Miller places a lifetime burden on the young private when he says: “Earn this”.
As an old man, Ryan returns to the Normandy cemetery where so many of his comrades are buried. He is overcome with grief and uncertainty. He will never know if he “earned” his rescue.
President Obama tried to make his case that he understands the pain of war. He also tried to make the case that he could earn his Nobel prize while commanding troops in battle. Did he succeed?
When the Nobel committee announced the award in October, President Obama struck the right note, admitting that he did not view the award “as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership . . . . I will accept this award as a call to action”.
Obama’s Oslo speech acknowledged his nation’s involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made no reference to the US involvement in Israel’s military occupation of a predominantly Muslim population in the West Bank and Gaza, where there is also an historic, sizable Christian minority.
Leaders of that Christian community issued a call for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine in a document developed after a December 11 meeting in Bethlehem.
The document is referred to as “The Kairos Palestine Document” It echoes a similar summons issued by South African churches in the mid-1980s at the height of repression under the apartheid regime.
Which raises the theological question: Was the Obama speech Niebuhrian? Did it demonstrate a genuine moral grappling with the ambiguity of all the facts on all three fronts, two of which he owned up to?
Was the speech authentic to the probing analysis of politics and theology found in the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian Obama appears to have studied carefully.
Since his death 38 years ago, theologians and political pundits across the spectrum have claimed to know how Niebuhr would respond to each succeeding political crisis. They see in him what they want to see.
President Obama’s speech this morning in Oslo was truly remarkable. A monsignor called shortly after the President finished his remarks and said it was the best speech from a politician he had ever heard.
I suspect the monsignor’s judgment was biased because the speech was, above all else, theological. And the theology was all Reinhold Niebuhr.
I asked retired Iliff School of Theology Professor William Dean, if he saw Niebuhrian realism in Obama’s speech.
Dean contributed to the 2009 anthology, Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original (Daniel Rice, editor). Dean’s essay was entitled, “Niebuhr and Negative Theology”, which examined Niebuhr’s “sometimes grim realism”.
Dean responded in good Niebuhrian fashion, identifying the ambiguity inherent in the speech:
Obama’s approach could be called realist because he confessed to be willing, in certain rare circumstances, to wage war even while he recognizes its tragic character; to be willing to seek justice even while he recognizes “oppression will always be with us”; and to recognize that “the non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance.”
Obama’s approach could be called theological because he was willing to associate the “law of love” with “the purpose of [religious] faith” and to base his search for a “world that ought to be” on “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” (All quotes cited are from the last few paragraphs of Obama’s speech.)
On the other hand, I have noticed that few liberal critics of the speech have asked precisely what geo-political consequences would follow if we were to stay on the current downward slope in Afghanistan.
They are right to be horrified with the evil of war, but I don’t get from them the informed estimates of the consequences of avoiding the surge, which I need to hear as I struggle for a response to Obama’s policy.
There is no easy answer to Dean’s geo-political question. So I kept looking.
One critic of the Oslo speech returned to the President’s West Point troop surge speech for a more complete examination of the additional surges the president failed to address either at West Point or in Oslo’s City Hall.
Tom Engelhardt writes in TomDispatch.com, that the president made no reference in either speech to other “surges” in Afghanistan, including, “The Contractor Surge”:
Private contractors certainly went unmentioned in his speech and, amid the flurry of headlines about troops going to Afghanistan, they remain almost unmentioned in the mainstream media.
In major pieces on the president’s tortuous “deliberations” with his key military and civilian advisors, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, all produced from copious officially inspired leaks, there wasn’t a single mention of private contractors, and yet their numbers have been surging for months.
A modest-sized article by August Cole in the Wall Street Journal the day after the president’s speech gave us the basics, but you had to be looking.
Headlined “U.S. Adding Contractors at Fast Pace,” the piece barely peeked above the fold on page 7 of the paper. According to Cole: “The Defense Department’s latest census shows that the number of contractors increased about 40% between the end of June and the end of September, for a total of 104,101.
That compares with 113,731 in Iraq, down 5% in the same period… Most of the contractors in Afghanistan are locals, accounting for 78,430 of the total.” In other words, there are already more private contractors on the payroll in Afghanistan than there will be U.S. troops when the latest surge is complete.”
Engelhardt points to other Afghanistan surges omitted from the West Point speech, including the “CIA and Special Services surge,” described by Scott Shane in the New York Times:
“The White House has authorized an expansion of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said…, to parallel the president’s decision… to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time — a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas — because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”
Engelhardt lists nine surges in all. (For the full Engelhardt posting, click here.)
In the Oslo rhetoric Obama failed to give us the complete story. What is our ultimate goal in Afghanistan, where he has just stepped up American military presence?
Rick Rozoff, writing on the website of the Center for Research on Globalization, finds in the speech embarrassing theological and biblical ignorance. Is there not a single speech writer in the White House who could have flagged this serious stumble that found its way into Obama’s speech?
“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”
Oops. Rick Rozoff offered this reprimand:
Unless this unsubstantiated claim was an allusion to the account in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible of Cain murdering his brother Abel, which would hardly constitute war in any intelligible meaning of the word (nor was Cain the first man according to that source), it is unclear where Obama acquired the conviction that war is coeval with and presumably an integral part of humanity.
This really is embarrassing. (Somewhere in Indonesia there must be a retired religious teacher wondering, “what did I do wrong?”)
When Obama says he reserves “the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation” he does not make the case that a gang of terrorists hiding in caves (probably less than 100) constitute a danger of such magnitude that they are an immediate danger to United States. security.
This is Obama’s version of the Bush era’s warning of a “mushroom cloud” hanging over America. The American people voted for change. The return of the faux “mushroom cloud” is not change.
There are hiding places and supportive communities around the world capable of harboring what Obama calls evil.
The President used “evil” as a noun, twice in the speech. Since “evil” is lodged in the soul of every living human, terrorist tactics may be planned where there is sufficient will, means and anger to do so. Terror knows no boundaries. It will not be defeated by war waged within boundaries.
Niebuhr would have closely examined the geo-political implications behind the rhetoric President Obama used when he spoke of a “just war”–a theological category–in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan war was launched by George W. Bush on equally invalid religious and geo-political grounds. It should end now with our troops removed in a realistic and safe manner.
Here are three realistic arguments for rejecting the Bush war before it becomes Obama’s war.
Andrew Bacevich, author ofThe Limits of Power:
Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.
Whatever the Obama administration does in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the American ability to mount a sustained operation of this size in one of the most difficult places on the planet, when it can’t even mount a reasonable jobs program at home, remains a strange wonder of the world.
And finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower:
I hate war, as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, it futility, its stupidity. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.
The picture of Tom Hanks is from the film, Saving Private Ryan. The picture from Oslo was taken by Doug Mills, for The New York Times