Obama attempted to justify his concepts of “just war” and “just peace” in a tense speech that veered between the idea that “war is sometimes necessary” and the idea that “war is an expression of human error”; between his ideals of non-violence inspired by Luther King and his role as Commander in Chief of a country whose army is currently embroiled in two wars.
Many of the statements he made during the speech underlined the contradictions he faces as a man who acknowledges that he “stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence”. “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones”. “I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.” Yet, at the same time, he, as Head of State, has sworn to protect and defend his country, and talks of “underwriting global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms”. “In many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower”.
He goes on to quote the words President Kennedy spoke long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions”. And Obama, he of the big dreams, goes on to justify the politics of the ‘possible’.
He claims that “America’s commitment to global security will never waiver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan. This is true in failed states like Somalia, where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come. The leaders and soldiers of NATO countries — and other friends and allies — demonstrate this truth through the capacity and courage they have shown in Afghanistan. But in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That is why NATO continues to be indispensable. That is why we must strengthen UN and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That is why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali — we honor them not as makers of war, but as wagers of peace.”
Obama no longer talks of the audacity of peace, of the aspiration to use the practice of active non-violence to construct a society where no type of violence is possible. He does, however, undertake to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them” stating that this “is a centerpiece of my foreign policy”.
He also attempts to define the peace he seeks as a “just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual”. “A just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”
“Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about.”
Will Afghanistan be for Obama what Vietnam was for Kennedy?
Today, however, the world is a great deal more complex, and the American president acknowledges this saying “Given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we’re moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines”, he continues affirming that “such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
“Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.”
Perhaps it is too much to ask, but we sincerely hope that Obama will rectify the errors made by previous American governments as regards military aggression. As we believe, as does he, in non-violence. “The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.”