Friday, December 11, 2009

Muscular Moral Relativism

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech appears to have been well received in this country, both among the left and the right.  That's nice.  It's an interesting speech:
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.  We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.  We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.  The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms.  But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.  Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago.  "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."  A gradual evolution of human institutions.
Yes. War is sometimes necessary when other avenues fail. America's power has helped ensure peace for the last sixty years.  Etc.  Hardly something a liberal peacenik would say.  Those that fearfully predicted that this President would be a knee-jerk anti-war President willfully ignored early hints that his outlook might be more realist than idealist, more Nixon than Wilson.  Andrew Sullivan talked up the realist aspect of Candidate Obama's foreign policy views a long time ago.  In fact, there were always more indications that Obama would disappoint his anti-war backers well before he would the more hawkish ones.

But, even as conservatives praised his speech, some couldn't resist a few jabs:
His decision to push for a surge also garnered Obama comparisons to Bush, who had done much the same thing in Iraq three years earlier. The Oslo speech, too, reminded some of Obama’s predecessor – with a twist.

“The irony is that George W. Bush could have delivered the very same speech. It was a truly an American president's message to the world,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, a Republican strategist and CEO of Kent Strategies LLC who worked in the Bush White House.

Added Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations: “If Bush had said these things the world would be filled with violent denunciations,” said “When Obama says them, people purr. That is fine by me.”
What bizarre logic.  Dear Mr. Mead: George W. Bush had the world's support to go to war against Afghanistan after 9/11.  That was a just war, if there ever was one, and was globally perceived as one.  Bush could have delivered a speech such as this one on September 12th, 2001 and would have faced few "violent denunciations".  But, Bush went on and invaded Iraq over the deep objections of the rest of the world.  That unpopular war, one that most certainly did not meet the traditional definition of a just war, led to widespread suspicion that Bush simply believed that any war America undertook was just.  The Bush doctrine was an affront to traditional just war theory.  That is why "the world" began reflexively denouncing any military effort Bush advocated, regardless of its merit.  So, yes, if Bush said these things today, the world would boo and hiss.  When Obama says these things right now, people purr.  But, if Obama decides to invade, say, Jamaica, under the guise of the war on terror, you can bet that people will most certainly not purr when he says these same things subsequently.