washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: The Best Speech of Obama’s Presidency

Reactions to the President’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize have for the most part been modestly positive, even from Republicans who uttered faint praise in the midst of denunciations of the prize and its recipient.
In the New Republic, TDS Co-Editor William Galston went further than most Democrats or Republicans, callling it “the best speech of Obama’s presidency.”

What struck me most favorably about the speech was Obama’s moral realism–about the world, and about his own role within it. Forcefully, but with dignity and restraint, he distinguished his responsibilities from those of King and Gandhi, who led nonviolently as private citizens. “Evil does exist in the world,” he declared, and as long as it does, war is a moral possibility, sometimes a moral necessity. And not only to defeat evil; “the instruments of war,” he said, “do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

Aside from his effort to articulate a realistic “just war” philosophy, Obama’s speech, says Galston, also struck a nicely nuanced note about a subject many feel he has shirked since taking office, the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy:

He went on to describe the kind of peace America seeks: “Peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting. It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.”
But all too often, Obama continued, their principles are ignored. In some countries, leaders falsely suggest that human rights are merely aspects of the West, foreign to and imposed on non-Western cultures. In America, realists and idealists contend endlessly against one another.
“I reject this choice,” the president declared. “I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders, or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true: only when Europe became free did it finally find peace.” These truths have practical implications for the conduct of American foreign policy. “Even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries,” Obama promised, “America will be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”

It was certainly an unusual speech for a politician and a head of state; you could no more imagine George W. Bush giving it than you could imagine Bush receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in the first place. But Galston views it as potentially a harbinger of the future direction of Obama’s foreign policy, and a “better balance between private engagement and public firmness, and between carrots and sticks,” in terms of diplomatic relations with repressive regimes.

One comment on “TDS Co-Editor William Galston: The Best Speech of Obama’s Presidency

  1. gdb on

    The problem that Obama has is that the realities of the Afghanistan war do not meet Obama’s own descriptions of a just, necessary war that leads to a just peace. Some of his problem is reflected in more complete quotes from the speech as opposed to selective quotes as in the article cited. For example, a more complete quote is:
    “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [King, Ghandi] 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-Qaedas 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.”
    Most of the underlying rationale of the speech is a defense of his recent decision/choice to escalate (rather than rapidly decrease) the US presence in Afghanistan as just and necessary for the defense of the US and will produce a just peace that nonviolence could not produce. That is a multipart argument, all parts of which must be valid.
    Let’s agree that non-violence is Afghanistan would not produce a just peace and that the war as begun 8 years ago was initially just in that we responded to an attack on our soil that originated in Afghanistan. However, those stipulations still leave open the question of the necessity of this war for our national defense and a resulting just peace.
    Obama in the speech repeatedly cites the need to eliminate al Qaeda in Afghanistan as the necessary reason. He makes no mention of the Taliban [and, in fact, they threaten citizens in Afghanistan, not US citizens on our soil]. Take him at his word(s).
    To defend the US against al Qaeda, Obama requires 100,000 troops to fight 100-200 al Qaeda on behalf of a corrupt regime that just stole an election and that has little support of the Afghan populace. That’s a definition, in Obama’s own words, of a dumb war. There are more al Qaeda (and members of similar terrorist groups) in Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia…. you fill in the blanks. They are almost certainly planning more evil with more resources than those al Qaeda in caves in Afghanistan.
    Perhaps even further from reality is the contention that combat troops from the US (or Christian Europe) are appropriately required to fight terrorist “evil Muslim gangs” wherever?? That’s another definition of a dumb war whether applied to Afghanistan — or whatever other country you wish to use that strategy to fight terrorism. [Has no one read and understood Clausewitz or Santayana?]
    And to what end in Afghanistan?? A just peace?? After how many decades of occupation? At what cost to the citizens of Afghanistan and America. Does anyone seriously believe we will build an Afghan nation in several years.
    Yes– there are just wars followed by just peace. Mark my words: Afghanistan will not be one of them.. and the costs to the Afghani’s and Americans and Obama will be high.
    I suspect I will not be here to see the unfortunate end game for Afghanistan and Obama. I did see a distressingly similar end game for Vietnam and LBJ who was a man of action and of little eloquence.
    LBJ, in my opinion, did more for civil rights [after Lincoln] and health care than any other President. However, his personal and political legacy was ruined by the devastating costs of Vietnam. A costly, un-winable, non-necessary, dumb war escalated in far better economic times than now and continued by Nixon for 5-6 additional years. To what just end? Obama’s legacy is may well be heavily determined by an un-necessary, un-winable war in Afghaninistan that has little chance to produce a just peace..
    Take this as a screed written by gdb from Austin, TX, channeling LBJ with much sadness using a pen warmed up in Hell.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.