x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama's blend of war and peace

If Mr Obama's aim was to lift flagging popularity at home, his Oslo speech appears to have been successful in hitting the right notes. Indeed, having frequently been exposed to severe attacks by conservatives, it was from the right that Mr Obama received some of his most enthusiastic reviews. If on the one hand he expressed modesty in noting his own lack of accomplishments, he also flattered his fellow Americans by treating the award as an affirmation of American values.

In a speech delivered to an audience of VIPs in Oslo while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the US President Barack Obama tailored his message to an audience in the United States that was skeptical about both the war in Afghanistan and the young president's qualifications for receiving such an award. As Craig Nelson noted in The National: "The awarding of the prestigious prize to the 48-year-old Mr Obama - only the third time in the 108-year history of the honour that it has been awarded to a sitting president - came only nine days after he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, adding to the nearly 70,000 already there. "Meanwhile, there are still 115,000 American soldiers in Iraq, where a series of bombings on Wednesday, which killed 127 people and wounded another 400, was a reminder of another war that is far from over." If Mr Obama's aim was to lift flagging popularity at home, his speech appears to have been successful in hitting the right notes. Indeed, having frequently been exposed to severe attacks by conservatives, it was from the right that Mr Obama received some of his most enthusiastic reviews. On the one hand he expressed modesty in noting his own lack of accomplishments, but he also flattered his fellow Americans by treating the award as an affirmation of American values. In The Washington Post, Kathleen Parker wrote: "Obama's speech, an artful balance of realism and idealism, was both a Judeo-Christian epistle, conceding the moral necessity of war, and a meditation on American exceptionalism. He was, in other words, the unapologetic president of the United States and not some errant global villager seeking affirmation. "The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader. "Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves." While his predecessor became infamous as a proponent of preventive war, in Oslo Mr Obama enunciated an approach to the world that for some observers has disquieting similarities with the "Bush Doctrine". As Politico noted: "It's already being called the 'Obama Doctrine' - a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that US military can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends. " 'There will be times,' Obama said, 'when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.' "The remarks drew immediate praise from a host of conservatives, including former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov Sarah Palin. " 'I liked what he said,' Palin told USA Today. 'Of course, war is the last thing I believe any American wants to engage in, but it's necessary. We have to stop these terrorists.'" In Salon, Glenn Greenwald, underlining the politically broad spectrum of praise for the speech, said: "Much of the liberal praise for Obama's speech yesterday focused on how eloquent, sophisticated, nuanced, complex, philosophical, contemplative and intellectual it was. And, looked at a certain way, it was all of those things - like so many Obama speeches are. After eight years of enduring a president who spoke in simplistic Manichean imperatives and bullying decrees, many liberals are understandably joyous over having a president who uses their language and the rhetorical approach that resonates with them. "But that's the real danger. Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal polices. Just as George Bush's Christian-based moralising let conservatives feel good about America regardless of what it does, Obama's complex and elegiac rhetoric lets many liberals do the same. To red state Republicans, war and its accompanying instruments (secrecy, executive power, indefinite detention) felt so good and right when justified by swaggering, unapologetic toughness and divinely-mandated purpose; to blue state Democrats, all of that feels just as good when justified by academic meditations on 'just war' doctrine and when accompanied by poetic expressions of sorrow and reluctance. When you combine the two rhetorical approaches, what you get is what you saw yesterday: a bipartisan embrace of the same policies and ideologies among people with supposedly irreconcilable views of the world." The American historian, Howard Zinn, wrote bluntly in The Guardian: "People should be given a peace prize not on the basis of promises they have made - as with Obama, an eloquent maker of promises - but on the basis of actual accomplishments towards ending war, and Obama has continued deadly, inhuman military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The Nobel peace committee should retire, and turn over its huge funds to some international peace organisation which is not awed by stardom and rhetoric, and which has some understanding of history." In the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine's Scott McLeod suggested that to many in the Middle East, Mr Obama's peace prize must seem like a cruel hoax. "In June, Egyptians cheered him for pledging an intense personal effort to resolve the region's problems through negotiations rather than force, and his outreach to the Muslim world was surely on the mind of the Nobel committee when it made the award. In the last three months, however, the Obama administration has steadily undone the president's initial positive moves by seriously mishandling one of the Middle East's central issues: the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "Simply put, the administration has severely and perhaps fatally undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. By all accounts, the Palestinian Authority - and its moderate leader, an architect of the 1993 Oslo accord - is essential to a negotiated outcome of the long conflict. It is true that Abbas works in the shadow of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and he has been unable to reverse the gains made by the rival Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. But the administration hasn't helped: Obama's aides dragged Abbas like a stooge to a hollow summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then leaned on him to downplay a UN report that cited possible Israeli war crimes during the Gaza war. Worst of all, Obama backed away from supporting a key Palestinian Authority position: an insistence on a total freeze of Jewish settlements. Soon, the humiliated Abbas announced that he would not seek another term in office. Ploy or not, the threat reflects the further decline of Abbas' domestic credibility. "The episode also illustrates the pervasive lack of empathy that blinds US policymakers to the history, culture and politics that drive Arab attitudes and decisions. Obama's mishandling of Abbas fits a familiar pattern in which Palestinian leaders and Palestinian rights are reflexively downplayed or disregarded in American calculations."

pwoodward@thenational.ae