Friday, December 11, 2009


by Philip J. Cunningham

It’s official. US President Barack Obama, long suspected of being the type of person who wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wine and dine with Wall Street while tossing rhetorical crumbs to the poor, dispossessed and hungry, all the while hobnobbing with the rich and famous and amassing draconic executive privilege, has, in his Nobel speech, just proved himself to be the world’s biggest phony.

The two-faced master of the mellow sound-bite has just outdone himself in trying to convince a jaded world that war is peace, that imperialism is liberation, that down is up and two plus two equals five. Even at this most international of events, in a world that desperately needs some leaders willing to look beyond the narrow self-interests of the nation state, he preaches America the good, America the beautiful, America the just. Music to the ears of a stateside schoolchild or your died-in-the-wool Yankee xenophobe, perhaps, but hardly cosmopolitan in spirit.

Rather, his speech is mean-spirited. He goes out of his way, and beyond the bounds of decency, in his effort to show that war is necessary and American warfare is especially just. His argument is lame and conflicted. He says war’s been around for a long time so, hey, get used to it. If he was making a speech in favor of legalization prostitution or opium, there might be some point in making the “oldest profession” kind of argument, but surely that flimsy line of thinking has no place coming from a man who has unique and unparalleled access to the world’s most deadly nuclear arsenal. Surely that pale logic doesn’t justify a war, any war, the war of the moment, the Af-Pak War of Obama’s design, just because there have been wars in the past.

Obama gets shockingly narrow and parochial at times, saying in effect that America is good and anyone who opposes America is bad. He pins war crimes on the other guys, but doesn’t begin to address war crimes of his own nation. Suspicion of American is not justified, it’s “reflexive.”

The weirdest thing about Obama, in contrast to other presidents, is that he has been granted a war criminal gets out of-jail-free card, not so much by cronies in the Party machine that put him up for election, much as Bush and Cheney escaped impeachment and trial for war crimes because of their domestic base, but because the US public gives Obama a benefit of the doubt that was never extended to his supposed polar opposite, man of war, G W Bush.

It’s true that Obama’s presidency is historic for breaking the race barrier, it’s refreshing to see a biracial president in the company of his African American wife. But those who break such barriers, in the name of us all, and generally to the benefit of society as a whole, like peasant turned emperor Mao Zedong, are not perfect and do not get a free pass to commit other crimes just because they are on the right side of a protracted struggle.

The acceptance speech he gave for an undeserved Nobel Peace Prize had some built-in hedging, anticipating, and perhaps responding to Arianna Huffington’s observation that there’s a certain irony in a war president getting the peace prize. But then again, the Nobel Prizes have always been quirky, if not a bit kooky, outside the science awards at least; awarding the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger being a case in point.

Obama’s speech, like much of his political life, tries to have it both ways. It’s his bifocal vision that makes him interesting to listen to, until you realize he’s utterly lacking in meaningful convictions, and is instead forever tacking left or right as the opportunity of the moment demands. If there is an internal moral compass at work, the needle jerks around a lot.

Why, one only need to look at the text of his speech to see a flim-flam man all over the place. War is not glorious, but warriors are. America’s wars are morally justified, others are not. He respects Gandhi and King, but he’s loves NATO and the US Army too. He lauds “humanitarian” armed intervention of the sort that helped tear the once-solid nation of Yugoslavia asunder, but would not for a moment forgive Alaskans, or Americans anywhere else, if they wanted to secede or seek independence, especially with foreign military assistance.

It’s a one-way street, all over again.

Obama bemoans inevitable civilian casualties, yet posits the US as the standard bearer of just war, even though hundreds of civilians have already been killed on his watch. If his predecessor made an ass of America, the main difference is that he's giving a superficially more dignified performance; call it a donkey instead.

Obama shrewdly, if not a bit oddly, acknowledges the cruelty of the Crusades, which conveniently took place some seven hundred years before America was even founded, but he glosses over more obvious, more relevant and more recent lessons in man’s inhumanity to man. He eschews in particular poignant, tragic examples of the American Man’s inhumanity to man, such as the Vietnam War, in which several million Vietnamese were killed because “the men” in the Beltway couldn’t get their act together, playing hot potato with an unpopular, unnecessary war.

It’s true that a handful of terrorists with outsized rage have and can inflict horrible terror on innocents. It’s also true that take-no-prisoners, spare-no-one-in-the-way approach immortalized in all its deadly valor by famous American generals, --Curtis Le May is perhaps the most egregious example—but it’s a tradition that goes back at least to the time of General Sherman and up to General Westmoreland, if not more recently in the US occupation of Iraq.

Obama opines that a handful of bad men can murder innocents due to modern technology. This has been true for a long time. Robert MacNamara, a wartime Secretary of Defense in a position to understand such things, admitted that Le May, and a handful of technocrats and yes-men around him, single-handedly ordered the murder of 100,000 Tokyo civilians in a single evening by ordering B-29s to fly low and light the city on fire.

Forget the Crusades. What about Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

These two cities, rebuilt from almost total, almost instantaneous destruction, extended invitations that were demurely snubbed by Obama during his recent lackluster Asian junket. Apparently he’s not in the mood to think too hard about peace these days.

The US Commander-in-Chief chides nations for pursuing nuclear weapons, something his nation possesses in spades, and he chillingly speaks, with the power of a terror-inflicting arsenal at his command, of “accountability” for others. And just who is America accountable to?

The arrogant unilateralism of the Bush years rolls on.

Still, one must credit Obama for being at least being self-aware, especially in contrast to the equally narcissistic but considerably more ham-fisted Bush, his predecessor as White House resident decider-in-chief.

Obama is, after all, nothing, if not self-invented, nothing, if not deeply reflective, which is what makes him such a charming writer. He wants to please you, the reader, like a slightly mischievous school-kid who craves teacher’s approval. He wants so badly to be liked, that he’s apt to say very different things to very different people.

His books and school-boyish charm had much to do with his rapid rise as Democratic Party darling. On the one hand, he adopts the “aw shucks” modesty of a man who is not sure he deserves such a prize, knowing full well that being seen as a man of peace conflicts with his day job.

But he’s always been a bit arrogant under the cloak of self-deprecation. Before getting elected he intimated that his victory was our victory, remember “Yes We Can!” Once in power he has been quick to chide critics, mostly through his underlings and the now fraying fraternity of youthful net-savvy supporters, and of late has even been getting up front and personal, as his recent upbraiding of Congressman John Conyers Jr. suggests. Why are you demeaning me? That’s not part of the unspoken deal I thought we had. Being “liberal” means never having to criticize me.

Image management is central to the modern American presidency, why, there’s so much spin and spit and polish and hot air, it makes China’s clumsy, crusty leaders look almost genuine in comparison.

Obama sounds like a man still running for president, he declares war on the hitherto neglected Af-Pak region, but promises troop withdrawals that time nicely with a second bid for the presidency. Like a savvy pol, he knows on which side his bread is buttered, only Americans can elect him, so on this most international of all nights in Oslo, he plays not so much the immediate audience, as to the distant electorate.

He behaves as if he’s in debt to the Democratic Party and supporters who put their money where their mouth was, such as John Roos, Ambassador to Japan, whose previous political experience can be summed up as “generous contributor to the Obama campaign.”

It’s almost obligatory these days to describe the US president as “eloquent” even when he’s not, such as during his recent Asian junket which was much ado about nothing in word and deed.

But words can kill, and Barack Obama’s Nobel speech is a dangerous inasmuch as he’s devilishly good with language. His words serve as a green light to a new deadly war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not that he cried “fire” in a crowded movie theatre so much as he’s tossing lit matches --incendiary words in favor of violence-- into a tinderbox that threatens to send the world on fire, tumbling down a slope of greater chaos. He’s giving a thumbs up to dropping bombs down from above, putting more boots on the ground, in a war likely to lead to yet more war, all the while wrapping it up and casting it in the most glowing boilerplate rhetoric available.

In making his case for war, he employs, without apparent irony, emotive words such as love, peace, justice, and even the theologian’s “oughtness.” He pulls out all stops, and drops all pretense of modesty, speaking of his work “here on earth.”

He’s not just sounding Orwellian, he’s sounding alien and strange.

Earth calling Obama: Where’s the man you said you were?