11 December 2009

Obama's Nobel speech: "just" war or just war?

It may have been the least peace-sounding speech by a Nobel Peace Prize winner ever. U.S. President Barack Obama, this year's winner, attempted to strike a balance, justifying war at the same time as he justified peace. A balance he said between pacifism on one side, exemplified by Gandhi and King, and militarism on the other. In other words, the moderate path between extremes.

This might have been convincing if the United States was on such a path, but it isn't. The United States is waging two wars, has hundreds of military bases around the world, and spends almost as much on weaponry as the rest of the world combined. It is on a path of militarism, and that's the path Obama has inherited and is pursuing. He may be winding one of his wars down, but he's ramping the other one up.

Now the leader of a war nation, Obama may, for better or worse, simply be adapting to that position because he has no choice. Militarism is now so entrenched in the American economy and the American culture that a true man of peace probably can't win the presidency of that nation. Obama must play the warrior, talk some war talk and do some war stuff or lose his credibility.

The real question is where he's going with it. Is it possible that he isn't quite the man the world hoped for and, soaring rhetoric aside, has succumbed to the lure of power? Does he find the role of emperor pleasing and is he becoming increasingly comfortable with massive military budgets and endless war? Has he become a closet militarist?

Or is he playing for time, performing for the warmongers while planning to actually move his country off the militarist road and toward the moderate path he talked about? There are hints. He seems serious in his dialogue with Russia about reducing nuclear armaments. Indeed, he talks about a world without nuclear arms. He is pulling his country out of Iraq, if painfully slowly, and despite the surge he has set a timetable for leaving Afghanistan. Despite his stimulus policies, he seems to understand the United States can no longer afford its spendthrift ways and the fattest budget available for the axe is the defence budget.

To borrow his favourite word, we can only hope. But the United States has a long way to go to shed its militarism: ending two wars, closing dozens of military bases, decommissioning thousands of nuclear weapons, dramatically slashing weapons spending ... a very long way indeed. If Obama can even make a serious start on all this, he will have earned his Nobel.

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