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The Obama Nobel Speech, Annotated

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The Internet has seen much commentary on yesterday’s Nobel Peace acceptance speech, but in exception to the traditional left-right paradigm, the speech saw enthusiasm from “both sides” of the aisle. The infamous Karl Rove praised the speech as “tough”, “superb” and “effective”, while Washington Post liberal Ruth Marcus entitled her summary “Obama’s Brilliant Nobel Speech”. Few, however, have offered anything more than knee-jerk praise; certainly nothing approaching an annotated review. Which is a shame, because “stirring” though Obama’s speech may have been, it remains riddled with inaccuracies, evasions, and at times, outright omissions.

Obama began strongly, much to his credit, by saying what was on everyone’s mind and tacitly denying he deserved the prize:

Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women — some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

He immediately follows that up with the other thing on everyone’s mind: the two brutal wars which he commands.

But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.

So far, so good – very good, in fact – but this is where things begin to slide downhill. Obama next extolls the virtues of the US’s actions during the Cold War

Yes, terrible wars have been fought, and atrocities committed. But there has been no Third World War. The Cold War ended with jubilant crowds dismantling a wall. Commerce has stitched much of the world together. Billions have been lifted from poverty. The ideals of liberty and self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced.

Citizens of Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Poland, or any of the archipelagic African states must have taken great offense to these lines. In one sentence, to dismiss the brutality  of US policy as “terrible wars fought and atrocities committed”! Obama does not mention that a majority of these “terrible wars” were directly funded and perpetuated by the United States, in many cases for whole decades. We paid for the East Timor genocide; we caused a 30-year civil war in Guatemala; we reduced Vietnam to a smoky ruin. When Obama claims “There has been no Third World War”, he must mean there has been no nuclear war; failing that, it is difficult to see how continuous warfare around the world does not qualify as a “third world war”.

The rest of the speech takes the form of a full-throated defense of our current actions in Afghanistan, beginning, of course, with an obligatory comparison to Hitler:

For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.

He then, (incredibly!) claims full responsibility for America in “stabilizing” the world after WWII:

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: 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.

“From Germany to Korea”, eh, Obama? I think you forgot to mention someone: Vietnam. We certainly “underwrote security” for them, did we not? Likewise,  I surely doubt citizens of Iraq would thank us for the security we afforded them. And those are just the well-publicized countries. Ask any victim of our secret wars, in Nicaragua, say, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, who still languish under US-funded dictatorships. See what they have to say about the so-called “global security” we underwrote.

As an example, Obama remarks:

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war.

Ah, the Balkan myth! I thought this had already died. Obama (and the rest of the US establishment) would have the public believe that the US bombed Serbia in the late ’90s for humanitarian reasons: “to stop a genocide”. However, as Professor Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, the widespread massacres began in Serbia only after we launched our cruise missile strikes. The real reason we went to the Balkans, according to Chomsky and many others, was to secure the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, an end which has been nicely accomplished.

And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe 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 prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.

As you well know, Mr. Obama, Guantanamo is neither the largest nor the most brutal of our secret prisons. And given that one of your first actions in office was to expand our secret prisons in Afghanistan (most notoriously, the Bagram dungeon), it remains difficult to take you seriously on this one. Of course, you prohibit “torture”, so did President Bush, but you have explicitly endorsed “renditions” (that is, kidnapping) to secret prisons, and you refuse to allow Red cross inspectors into them. What were those rules we abide by again?

He ends with an ironic appeal to emotion – ironic because it describes (inadvertently) the beneficiaries of US “justice”

Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government , but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school — because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.

A surer description of Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, Poland, South Africa, Zaire, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Pakistan, one could hardly find.

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Written by pavanvan

December 12, 2009 at 9:24 pm

One Response

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  1. Excellent post Pavan!

    SV

    December 12, 2009 at 11:21 pm


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