President Obama’s speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2009 has generally been reviewed in the US with much glow about its rhetorical heights and appreciation of its depth of thought. I did not watch Obama give this speech. Instead, I turned to the text which I could read at my leisure and without the speechifying fireworks that Obama has clearly mastered.
Although I seem stuck in a reflexive backward glance towards the eight disastrous years of Bush II whenever I evaluate Obama. I am still amazed at the enormous moral and practical abyss we fell through in those years. Obama brushing his teeth in the morning is reassuring in contrast. Nevertheless, it is worth looking a bit more closely at what Obama did and did not say here. Much has been said of his straight forward assertion that violence is necessary and even useful in a world inhabited by human beings who seem almost genetically predisposed to killing each other off. And, with the invocation of Martin Luther King and the discussion of just war theory, he covers well worn territory, though it is cheering to have a sitting US President talk in this fashion.
There is much to applaud in Obama’s speech: control of nuclear weapons, assertion of human and civil rights, multilaterialism in conflict resolution and enforcement, denial of religion as a justification for oppression of others.
But, we come to a significant claim, one that the US government has asserted for my entire lifetime, and which the US media and populace would support: “Whatever the 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.” And, Obama continues with the summary moral claim that underlies this assertion, “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 other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
There may have been some moments after WWII and the ensuing consolidation by the Soviet Union of its hold over Eastern Europe that the presence of the US military in Europe forestalled further Soviet expansion. But it is a little hard to translate that moment in history into the development of a global empire of US military and security bases – officially numbering around 800 and growing even now into Central Asia and Africa.1 And to compound the external effects of the US empire, we must add the militarization of American life on the home front. In all of US history until WWII, there has been a skepticism and fear of a permanent standing military. Demobilization was the norm until the last sixty years. Now we have an enormous military/police (Homeland Security Dept.)/spy infrastructure that consumes upwards of $900 billion per year.
Even a brief examination of Obama’s claim of a benign, even enlightened, role for the US in the world, seems enormously, and in his case unbelievably, deceptive. We only need to look at examples of direct US involvement in regime change to see that we have not always been doing things for the sake of our children let alone the rest of the world’s children. Pause on US military and quasi-military incursions in Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Grenada, Panama, Chile, and more and this claim seems a bit specious. Then consider the US underwriting of oppressive regimes, Egypt, Israel, Philippines, Indonesia, and more. Again the moral high ground slips away. Finally remember our adventures in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for more than two decades and our more recent Iraq disaster.
Another element of US domestic and foreign policy that has had, and continues to have, disastrous results is the longest American war, the War on Drugs. This war began at the initiative of President Nixon in 1969. This war consumes $40 billion of Federal and State resources in the current year and is now destabilizing Mexico while filling American jails with hundreds of thousands of drug users. Every President since Nixon has ended up increasing the budget for this completely ineffective war. Drugs are a global plague as demonstrated by opium being the entire economy of Afghanistan. It is not a simple problem, but 40 years of failure should be enough for some American President to shout, “The King has no clothes!”
Turn for a moment to the US as the world’s leading arms dealer. How is selling $ billions of high-tech war machines every year helping bring about peace? It is easy to see how this helps the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned off in his valedictory Presidential speech. Though the phrase should really be re-phrased as the military-industrial-Congressional complex since every single member of Congress will rush to defend military bases and defence contractor installations that are sprinkled across every Congressional district in every state. But, exactly how does increasing the availability of weapons increase stability and prosperity?
Though not entirely within the control of the US government (as demonstrated by recent events) the financial arm of the US economy has had, arguably, a broad negative impact on the third world. We have seen repeated over extensions of debt to countries that are then burdened with crushing debt service requirements. The US government has repeatedly bailed out US banks that have loaned money to countries in an unsupportable fashion. The banks have done this because, as demonstrated by recent events, the US government will not let the banking sector assume the real risks of their behavior. This is a sector that, unlike US manufacturing, is simply too well connected in Washington to fail.
Well, enough about the moral high ground occupied by the US in the world in last 60 years.
It would have been nice to hear Obama take a slightly more aggressive anti-war, pro-peace stance. He is a person who claims to like practical actions. Here are a couple.
Begin to demilitarize the world. Most of the arms used are produced by a relative handful of countries out of the 190 plus countries in the world.
First, tackle the tsunamis of small weapons that enable mayhem in almost every region of the world. Work through the UN to put in place a ban on the sale of military automatic weapons (UZIs, Kalashnikovs, etc), rocket propelled grenades, shoulder held rockets, grenades, land mines and probably a myriad other small military weapons that I am not aware of. Make it illegal to sell these weapons to anyone except a government recognized by the UN. Take 1% from every UN members’ military budgets and launch an international buy back program. At $200 per weapon, probably 5 million weapons could be bought back and ground up for scrap annually. If the buy back program was targeted to small geographic areas there would be a real impact on the availability of weapons. I must admit that there is an internal US political reality that stands in the way here. That gun culture and strength of gun lobbyists in the US. I can already hear the windy blathering from the NRA now.
Second, call the major arms suppliers of the world together. It won’t be hard to identify them nor require a very large ballroom. USA, Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine, Netherlands, UK, South Korea, Italy, and Sweden are the top ten and undoubtedly represent the vast majority of all arms production in the world. After all, number 10 on this list is Israel. Set 2009 as the baseline and agree that each country’s exports of military weapons and systems will decrease by 5% of the baseline. Then, follow this with UN mandates that all of the other countries can only produce weapons for their own internal use. Essentially end the sales of weapons across international borders.
Why not announce an objective of denuclearizing the world. Instead of getting joint US – Russian nuclear armaments down to several thousand bombs, why not get them towards a few handfuls, just enough to invoke mutual fears of real retribution, while reducing the risk of mistakes or loss of control. If each country agreed to hold only relatively small warheads, each could build hardened holes where they could be completely assured of survivability and therefore the capability of destroying Washington, NYC, Chicago, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and so on if someone pushed the button. MAD would continue to be operational with only a few missiles to worry about and keep secure. This would make it politically much easier for both countries to be much more vigorous in suppressing the expansion of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world.
Now, all of this may seem monstrously silly and impractical. But, if you don’t take a step, you will never make the trip.
There is a deeper more troubling reality lurking below the surface of Obama’s speech. He represents a very timid and very fractionated coalition within the Democratic party and the ruling elite in the corporate-military-media machine that is our government. This is very clearly demonstrated currently by their inability to face down the corporate interests in the insurance, hospital, doctor, and pharma-medical products sectors. Here is a public problem that has been demanding a solution for several decades, now subject to spiraling costs, a problem for which the US public has been resolutely calling for a fix. Even many elements of the corporate world support the need for a fix. Here is a problem that has been solved in a number of different ways by every other industrialized country in the world. Here is a problem where literally you could roll the dice and just pick one of many known, workable solutions. Yet, Obama and the Democrats do not have the heft and internal cohesion to make a choice and tell the losers to go home. And, there should be losers because we all know the facts that the US health system is 30 to 40% more expensive than other countries’ systems ( see Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, and so on) and yet delivers near third world health outcomes.2 One of the painfully obvious facts is that many at the trough of American health care are not only sucking out dollars but also doing bad work at the same time. So, when viewing the lofty rhetoric and general timidity of Obama’s view of the world peace (war) from this perspective, it should be no surprise that he will not really say anything new or challenging concerning what the US might do to further commity in the world. It is a simple fact that he must go on with the general lines of US policy so clearly established over the last sixty years. He does not have the political strength to do anything else nor even to talk about it.
I close with this somewhat apocalyptic observation. The events of the last two years in the world economy demonstrates how fragile human systems really are. We went through a period in which many of the players in the very important global financial services industry simply stopped believing, trusting each other and the machinery of commerce. I don’t think that there are very many, even amongst the true believers in “free markets” (those wonders of self-righting systems), that did not fear that the entire world’s financial system would grind to a halt and shortly thereafter, that a global economic abyss was in front of us. And, now, only a year after the major governments of the world bailed them out, but new regulations have yet to be agreed to and put in place, the banking system has returned to its old ways of applying financial chicanery and leverage instead of earning the keep by loaning money to enterprises that produce value.
Now, I mention this here only to reflect on the fragility of human systems coupled with the propensity of human beings to keep doing what they have always done. We will not invent new ways of organizing ourselves until the existing organizations and practices have so completely broken down that there is no turning back from trying some novel strategies. This truth, and I think it is a truth about us, is exponentially amplified when you talk about the mega institutions, nation states, capitalism, organized religion, war. They are human institutions but ones with their own consciousness and self-fulfilling inertia. Obama is not going to change them. He can not even utter the words. He can not even suggest taking a small practical step towards disarmament, such as small arms control, because the inertia of the nation state coupled with corporate interests have his mind and mouth muzzled.