A provocative, well-written and thoughtful essay by Benjamin Kertsein on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech with some very sharp perceptions on the human condition and the necessary limits of messianism. Comments welcome. HT/oao (who’s not commenting much these days here)
Obama in Oslo: No More Messiahs
by Benjamin Kerstein
There is a fairly well-known phenomenon among alcoholics referred to as the “moment of clarity.” It is the momentary lifting of the haze of intoxication and denial, giving the drinker a sudden and often shattering insight into the stark reality of their situation. There is a strong possibility that President Obama’s December 9 Nobel Prize acceptance speech has given us a glimpse into a remarkable and somewhat unprecedented variation on this phenomenon: a political moment of clarity — one taking place, or at least publicly announced, on a global stage.
It must be said at the outset that the speech was also unprecedented in the context of Obama and the Obama phenomenon. It was both the first time Obama has said anything of substance, and certainly the first time he has displayed anything resembling political courage. It should also be noted that much of the speech was all but guaranteed to alienate both the president’s far-left base (already incensed by his decision to expand the war in Afghanistan) and his bien-pensant Scandinavian hosts.
Indeed, a great many of Obama’s greatest admirers consider the war on terror to be a malicious imperial project whose purpose is to enforce American hegemony on the world. Obama, however, referred to Afghanistan, now once again the major front in that war, with refreshing accuracy as “a conflict that America did not seek,” and “an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.” He also emphasized that “I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” For a president who has often seemed disturbingly addicted to irrational adulation, this willingness to invite derision deserves, at the very least, some measured praise.
More tellingly, Obama’s speech also included several statements that cannot be described as anything other than thinly disguised restatements of the Bush Doctrine. Assertions like “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation…. 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,” represent precisely the kind of unnuanced moral absolutism that the Bush Doctrine’s critics – including Obama himself – explicitly denounced and rejected.
One could dismiss this as the kind of empty rhetoric which has long been Obama’s only real talent, were it not coupled with a frankly remarkable passage that not only tacitly repudiates everything Obama has ever said about his predecessor’s foreign policy, but explicitly adopts its most central – and, on the part of Obama’s base, its most reviled – tenets.
Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists – a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values…. I reject this choice. 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…. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests, nor the world’s, are served by the denial of human aspirations. [Emphasis mine].
Coming from literally anybody else, this would be called what it is: a fairly eloquent summation of the principles of neoconservatism, particularly the emphasized passage, which obviously alludes to the Straussian ideal of the Democratic Peace.
The fact that Obama has in part adopted, consciously or unconsciously, the worldview of his predecessor does not, however, necessarily indicate a growing sobriety. Neoconservatism is not, after all, a particularly sober ideology. In many ways, it is just as naive and utopian as Obama’s previous vision of an interconnected, multilateralist “new world” that he endorsed in his Cairo speech. His sudden embrace of it – even if only in rhetorical terms – could simply be a switch, as often occurs, from one form of political messianism to another. There is, moreover, a fairly strong case to be made that neoconservatism, in its essence, is more a dissident (perhaps the correct term is “heretical”) leftist movement than a conservative one.
It seems, however, that the president’s moment of clarity is real, given his assertion that,
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…. So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.
This appears to be — and one hopes that it is — one of those depressing but absolutely necessary realizations that every responsible politician has to undergo at some point in their careers. Given that it is in total contradiction to the messianic worldview expressed by Obama up to now, one might assume that it represents a genuine shift in his outlook. That it renders much of his previous career and certainly his previous public image laughable is one of the dangers inherent in selling yourself as a messianic politician in a decidedly non-messianic world. Nonetheless, this is not a reason to completely dismiss such a shift. It is unquestionably preferable for a president of the United States to be a humbled but nonetheless sober individual than a naive and incompetent visionary.
It must be said, however, that a moment of clarity is not sobriety, nor is it necessarily a guarantee that sobriety will follow. One must admit that, while it is praiseworthy for Obama to finally speak these difficult truths, it is nonetheless disconcerting that it has taken him so long to comprehend them. Indeed, had Obama spent his college years reading Freud instead of Saul Alinsky, he would know that his “seemingly irreconcilable truths” are not a new or even particularly interesting. It is not, after all, particularly difficult to admit that human capacities for empathy, compassion, and justice coexist alongside far darker impulses toward aggression, death, violence, and destruction. What Obama is saying is objectively praiseworthy, but any assessment of it must be tempered by the realization that these are things any president of the United States ought to have learned long ago.
Indeed, the fact that Obama’s emerging sobriety is, at best, tenuous, is revealed by the conclusion of his speech, which both reiterates (albeit in less grandiose terms) his earlier messianic pretensions and makes clear that he has yet to reconcile them with his new, more humbling realizations. The dissonance expressed by the president is, in fact, remarkable. Having spoken eloquently about the “imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” Obama nonetheless ends by saying,
We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected… let us reach for the world that ought to be, that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls…. We can do that, for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.
This is, put simply, as close to a perfectly distilled statement of messianic politics as one can imagine. In the context of this speech, however, it reveals a president who has become trapped in his own self-contradictions. In this, he is not unique, because they are, in essence, the self-contradictions of liberalism (or any messianic political movement) in power.
Paul Berman’s excellent book Power and the Idealists explores this issue far better than I could, but the ramifications of it are nonetheless apparent. Put simply, no messianic political movement can withstand its encounter with power for very long. Political messianism is inherently uncompromising, absolutist, and obsessed with perfection and the possibility of perfection. As such, it cannot survive politics itself, which is, for the most part, the exact opposite of all of those things. Political messianism must either compromise — and thus cease to be messianic — or collapse.
Whether Obama will be able to successfully navigate his way out of this inevitable impasse remains an open question. If his Nobel speech is any indication, he is at least aware (finally) of the fact that the impasse exists, but appears unwilling to confront it honestly. Thus, he can claim that man is imperfect and reason is limited while simultaneously holding that existence is perfectible and we can “reach for the world that ought to be.” He can hold that war is inevitable, necessary, and an expression of “human feeling” while refusing to admit that the obvious implication of this is that to hope for an end to war is as absurd as hoping for an end to eating or sex – because war is human phenomenon which is not going away, and the best we can hope for is some measure of amelioration.
At the moment, then, it is difficult to invest too much hope in Obama’s moment of clarity. It indicates, at best, the possible beginning of a shift that may very well never come to fruition. And this, it must be said, is lamentable. Because George W. Bush’s dreams of the democratic peace and Obama’s even more unfortunate ideal of a multilateral utopia ought to have led us to an obvious conclusion: We need no more messianic politicians.
In fact, we are in desperate need of the opposite. What we require more than anything else is a courageous pessimism. A pessimism brave enough to make the public acknowledgment that the struggle to be free and, more importantly, the struggle to remain free is a Sisyphean one. It will always face the opposition of those who worship power, unity, purity, and – yes – perfection, whether they do so in the name of racial purity, social equality, or religious fervency. And it will face this opposition because if the struggle for freedom means anything, it must be the struggle to allow mankind the freedom to be imperfect in an imperfect world. Barack Obama appears, far too late, to be awakening to this realization. Whether this will eventually liberate him from the ideological prison of his own making is doubtful. Nonetheless, it is permitted, even for the pessimist, to place at least a small measure of hope in moments of clarity.
Benjamin Kerstein is Senior Writer for The New Ledger.
UPDATE: To view the Nobel Peace Prize speech (with all its pomp and fanfare), go here.