Keep Your Eyes on the Peace Prize

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CommonDreams.org

Keep Your Eyes on the Peace Prize

We have to give Team Obama credit for a truly historic and thoroughly incredible Nobel acceptance speech. Whereas the teachings and legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi were recalled as admirable yet not "practical or possible in every circumstance," we were reminded that Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were pragmatic peacemakers, and furthermore that America consistently strives to work both with and through the United Nations "to govern the waging of war, ... protect human rights, prevent genocide and restrict the most dangerous weapons." Obviously...

King and Gandhi as impractical idealists. Reagan as supporter of dissident solidarity. Nixon as advocate for unpopular paths to better international relations. America as guardian of human rights and bulwark of the UN. It seems that the realists must have stepped aside on this one, passing the baton to an emerging voice within the Obama Administration, namely that of the surrealists. How exactly are we to debate or dialogue with people willing to rewrite history and essentially proclaim that force is humanitarianism, that soldiering is an expression of the divine, and (of course) that war is peace? The fact that a Peace Prize acceptance speech can be used to justify warfare constitutes an inversion of spirit, a torturing of logic, and a betrayal of progenitors.

Indeed, the shadow of King in particular figured prominently in Obama's oratory, with the former's teachings utilized as a nascent straw-person to justify escalating warfare:

"As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. 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 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."

Almost 45 years ago to the day, King gave his Nobel acceptance speech, and flatly contradicted Obama's reasoning and conclusion that war is a necessary practice:

"So man's proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment."

For his part, Obama seemed to grasp this basic point on some level, yet still found himself back in a world where war is inevitable, citing King but rejecting his teachings:

"I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war.... We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.'... A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda'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."

King, however, understood that nonviolence was (and is) in fact capable of transforming even the most obdurate conflicts, and that it must be taken up as a policy of nation-states:

"I venture to suggest to all of you and all who hear and may eventually read these words, that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations. It is, after all, nation-states which make war, which have produced the weapons which threaten the survival of mankind, and which are both genocidal and suicidal in character. Here also we have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as imperative and urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to racial injustice."

Somehow this basic point remains lost on our President, namely that war cannot be a path to peace. For Obama, war is still the baseline of our policies and practices, despite a dearth of truly viable examples where it can even remotely be said to have "succeeded":

"The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.... So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."

The fact that Obama follows this by reflecting on the tragic (yet unfortunately necessary) realities of war would likely not have assuaged King's insistence that there can no longer be any conception of a "negative means to a positive end" in the quest for peace:

"We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say 'We must not wage war.' It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.... All that I have said boils down to the point of affirming that mankind's survival is dependent upon man's ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war; the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony."

Obama still manages to argue for the necessity of force and a kinder, gentler application of its inherently dehumanizing ramifications in the assertion of our moral superiority:

"Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions."

King had little patience for such overtures to "us versus them" thinking, no matter how well they might be dressed up in the language of human rights and security:

"We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.... We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world."

Somehow even this message of universal love still gets turned into a meditation on the intractability of injustice and the inevitability of war by Team Obama:

"Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. 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 intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.... We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace."

Obama wants to have it both ways, asserting that we can keep our eyes on the prize of peace even as we find ourselves constrained to wage war. King instead counseled that "peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war." I can think of no one more uniquely qualified to remind us of the stakes involved and the opportunities at hand, and to refute the ruminations of a Peace Prize-winning President who would divert our hopes for tomorrow into the failed logic of yesterday.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. His forthcoming book Peace Ecology is due out in May from Paradigm Publishers. Previous books include Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness, and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action.

 

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