Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Emersonian Obama

There is much that might be said (and no doubt much that has already been said) about Obama's Nobel acceptance speech. After a reading of the text that admittedly has not squeezed out every nuance, I highlight three points that seem especially noteworthy:

In dealing with repressive and so-called rogue regimes, the speech called for balancing sticks and carrots, sanctions that "exact a real price" and diplomacy. Although "engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," he said, sanctions standing alone are not enough. "No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." The recently announced U.S. policy on Sudan in fact followed this carrots-and-sticks approach.

(2) He insisted that justice and "a just peace" require the amelioration of poverty, in addition to the standard emphasis on civil and political rights. Economic and environmental security (including action on climate change) are linked here to traditional security. Indeed, this part of the speech could have been lifted from a textbook on "human security."

(3) Obama attempted, particularly in the closing passages, to reconcile a "clear-eyed" view of human imperfection with the possibility of progress. This might have recalled for some listeners parts of King's "I have a dream" speech, and indeed Obama quoted King on rejecting "despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history." And in a line that suggested at least one of his speechwriters might recently have been reading Thoreau or Emerson, Obama declared: "Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

While there were perhaps some tensions in the speech between the "clear-eyed" and the more visionary elements, I don't think, contra the view of one of the commenters on the NewsHour this evening, that the speech was "philosophically incoherent." No American president at this juncture in history could possibly give a full-throated, unambiguously Wilsonian speech, but neither was it an option, particularly in view of the occasion and the context, to end on anything other than a note of solidarism, hope, and uplift. If anything, the speech erred too far in the direction of a quasi-Sisyphean view of the world. But Obama is no longer campaigning, he is governing and making difficult decisions, so it is only natural to expect that his speeches will strike more ambiguous chords than they did during the campaign.


bro said...

what do you mean, speechwriters?*&#^%@

David Keppel said...

As one who worked most of last year to help elect Obama, I was hugely disappointed. The speech was designed to justify the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. In the process Obama accepted the "just war" argument. As one poster on the NYT site noted shortly afterward, when has a war-making leader not claimed "self-defense" or "humanitarian" motives? Even if our motives are pure, the world (particularly but not exclusively the Islamic world) won't see it that way. Meanwhile, trillions for war will leave us without resources to combat poverty and climate change.

I just don't buy that this was the best he could have done. That assumes that his political survival (and a pundit's calculation of what will secure that) takes precedence over his duty in matters of great importance to do what is right.

LFC said...

D.K.:Thank you for presenting a different view, one that is doubtless shared by many of those who worked in Obama's campaign.

I haven't had time fully to address here the Afghanistan decision and the associated arguments. As a general matter, I believe there are such things as just wars. Whether Afghanistan now qualifies as one, and whether the Afghan "surge" is justified in terms of cost and other considerations, are questions I will duck right now. Suffice it to say that, compared to many of those who worked in his campaign (and I also did to a very small extent), I am more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
bro: ha ha. I'm not saying Obama didn't write parts of this, but he does have speechwriters. The head one was even profiled in WashPost a while back. (He's very young, but evidently reasonably well-read.)

LFC said...

Although I think there can be just wars, I don't like the label "necessary war"; see here.