The Nobel address was Obama at his worst or near-worst. Let’s count the ways.
I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations – that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.
And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I.
But 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. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty three other countries – including Norway – in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks. (Bolding added.)
First Obama tells us how humble he is. Then he tells us that he is bending history in the direction of justice – a phrase that associates himself with Martin Luther King. Charming.
But it gets worse. The slightness of Obama’s achievements is (the president says) only a partial and lesser reason for the controversy over the prize. The “most profound” reason that the award has been so disparaged is … George W. Bush! Yes, Obama’s prize is controversial because the country is fighting two wars, one of which it did not seek – but the other of which we apparently did seek. Or rather – that George W. Bush sought.
While the one war is an effort of self-defense , the other is … not.
While the one war mustered an international coalition deserving of respect, the other mustered an international coalition that is … not.
When Barack Obama got word of the prize in October, he said he would accept “as an affirmation of American leadership.” But in Oslo he did not speak as leader of all America, but as leader of a party – and as a party leader who cannot refrain from snide insituations against the motives – not only of his opposite-party predecessors – but of all who worked with them, including the leaders of many allied governments.
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The Nobel address highlights President Obama’s inability to share credit with any identifiable human being – or to speak of his nation’s accomplishments in any but the most round-about and apologetic ways.
Listen to this:
The Cold War ended with jubilant crowds dismantling a wall. Commerce has stitched much of the world together. Billions have been lifted from poverty. The ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced. We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.
“Of generations past?” Did those “generations” not contain any names? People – Americans! – who did brave things at risk and often at cost of their lives?
The memory of the crowd dismantling the wall is a lovely one. But the great events of November 1989 could only occur because of the successful defense of the Western world over half a century by the armed power of a military alliance headed by the United States. (NB – nor did the Cold War end in November 1989. It ended almost two years later, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)
Notice the abstractions and passive verbs: “commerce” “have been lifted.” Unless the sentence begins with an “I”, there are no antecedents, no doers, no causes.
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The sentence I am about to quote may well have begun as an attempt to pay tribute to another:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.
But on the way to the tribute, Obama managed to insert two references to himself in a sentence that found room for only one reference of King. And there are surely ways to praise Dr King without exalting yourself even higher. As is, it seems that King is a great man because he made Obama’s career possible. One wonders: surely there must have been at least one or two other beneficiaries of King’s work as well?
This tendency to present the person of Barack Obama as the magnificent culmination of history is growing into a bad habit. It was displayed at the United Nations in September, when the president opened his address with the most intense barrage of “I”s since the Iran-Iraq war.
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A little before the midpoint of the speech, the president arrives at his tribute to the American soldier. It’s fine as far as it goes, but awfully minimal – and immediately followed by more barbs and more awkward silences.
Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions – not just treaties and declarations – that brought stability to a post-World War II world. 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 other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
The president then proceeded from this praise of the US fighting soldier to a repudiation of that soldier’s most recently concluded fight: Iraq.
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait – a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.
Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention – no matter how justified.
The word “Iraq” does not appear in the address, yet again and again the president flails out against that war. That is his opinion and his policy. Fine. Elections have consequences, as the saying goes. But Oslo is a horribly inappropriate venue for such criticisms. If he wants to argue with other Americans, let him do it in America, not in the course of accepting an award from some non-Americans for joining with them in their criticism of other Americans.
It’s human nature to prefer compliments to criticism, flattery to dissent. In that respect, Barack Obama is a very human man. But here he has gone too far: He has allowed an international organization to exploit his weakness to drive a wedge between this president and half his country – the half, ironically, whose support he most needs to sustain his ongoing foreign policy.
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Toward the end of his address, the president acknowledged a previously unspoken cause for the questions about his award: his weak record on democracy and human rights.
He offered this self-defense:
And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these [democratic] movements that hope and history are on their side
Let me also say this: the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach – and condemnation without discussion – can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.
“Painstaking diplomacy”? Obama gives himself too much credit. There are a range of adjectives to describe his approach to Iran, from naive to bungled to (most generously) unsuccessful. But a diplomacy based on disregard of all adverse information can hardly be described as “painstaking.”
How about this rewrite of the president’s sentence: “The promotion of human rights cannot be only about pathetic appeals to the tyrant’s supposed reasonable interests. At times it must be coupled with effective sanctions and forceful statements.” Reads different, yes?
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This should in itself knock the president’s approval rating among U.S. Jews below 50%:
We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden.
There’s something about this remark that reminds me of the line, no doubt apocryphal, attributed to a Nazi commandant as the Second World War drew to a close: “It’s time for us Germans and you Jews to bury the hatchet.”
And could somebody please note that the Iranian mullahs building nuclear weapons with the avowed intent of incinerating the Jewish state are not Arabs?