by Joe Shea
December 29, 2009
A SONNET FOR THE NEW YEAR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Erwin Knoll, the late publisher of The Progressive, said that in 1991, as the United States went to war against Iraq, "There is no such thing as a just war - never was, never will be."
The founder of The Progressive, Robert LaFollette, was as emphatic when he said in 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I, when he said, "Every nation has its war party. It is not the party of democracy. It is the party of autocracy. It seeks to dominate absolutely. It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. ... If there is no sufficient reason for war, the war party will make war on one pretext, then invent another."
That same year, American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, said that "wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder... . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles."
The words of these three men obviously have not been seriously considered by President Barack Obama. If were mindful of them, he would never said the things he said upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo - a speech that civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald called "the most explicitly pro-war speech ever delivered by anyone while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize."
Mr. Obama laid out the circumstances where war is justified - in self-defense, to come to the aid of an invaded nation, or on humanitarian grounds, such as when civilians are slaughtered by their own government or a civil war threatens to engulf an entire region. He said that "all nations - strong and weak alike - must adhere to standards that govern the use of force."
He name checked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, saying "as someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. (Martin Luther) King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."
"But," the President continued, "as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
He made it clear that "America's commitment to global security will never waver" and that "I - like any head of state - reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation."
These words scarcely deviate from the policies of President George W. Bush. Yes, President Obama spoke of the need for international cooperation to maintain peace in the world. But by justifying American warfare and asserting that war is a permanent part of the human condition rather than, as John Kenneth Galbraith once called it, "the decisive human failure," Obama's speech was nothing more than Bush rhetoric with better grammar and syntax.
As Greenwald wrote for Salon.com last week, most of the neocons who praised Mr. Obama's speech "made exactly that point in one way or another: if even this Democratic president, beloved by liberals, announces to the world that we have the unilateral right to wage war and that doing so creates peace and crushes evil, and does so at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony of all places, doesn't that end the argument for good?"
That's the tragedy of President Obama's Nobel address - especially after he acknowledged Gandhi and King and the accomplishments of people-powered nonviolent movements, and then turned his back on those who believe in peace and justice. Compare Obama's Nobel speech with the one King gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, where he clearly linked the immorality of the war in Vietnam with the spiritual and financial bankruptcy of the nation waging it, and the tragedy becomes even greater.
"Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal polices," wrote Greenwald. "Just as George Bush's Christian-based moralizing let conservatives feel good about America regardless of what it does, Obama's complex and elegiac rhetoric lets many liberals do the same."
In his speech at Riverside Church, King said that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Forty-two years later, the newest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize presides over a nation that spends more on war than every other nation on Earth combined. He has not brought to an end the worst of the Bush Administration's abuses - indefinite detention, military commissions, extreme secrecy, full-scale immunity for government lawbreaking - and his Administration continues to the reserve the right to employ them against our enemies. And he has committed our nation to continuing a pair of ill-advised wars begun by his predecessor instead of calling a halt to the madness and bringing our troops home.
If President Obama doesn't realize the incongruity of this, and how enthusiastically his words in Oslo were embraced by his political enemies, then our nation is approaching the spiritual death that Martin Luther King foretold.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.