The Obama He Said He Was, Not The Obama You Thought He Would Be

From The Depths, the North Carolina-based anarchist crust-metal band, played in Washington on Friday. The West Point speech was still very redolent. N., one of From The Depth’s guitarists, addressed the war by asking the assemblage what they really expected from Obama. Back in 2008, “I saw those Obama-O peace signs,” he said, surprised that anyone allowed themselves to believe that Obama was a peace candidate when he was already talking about escalation in Afghanistan. No, N. said, Obama was never going to be that person.

He’s right. And yet it’s amazing how few people wanted to believe that. On the right, Fred Barnes, ignoring years of Obama declarations of escalation in Afghanistan, wrote that if Obama were in the Senate he would have opposed precisely the escalation he ordered as president. On the left, I see that today, Rep. Grayson sent out an email to supporters urging Obama to end the Afghanistan war, writing, “Mr. President, be the President that we voted for, the President that you promised to be.”

I read Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech — the one that said “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” — and see the president he promised to be. I even wrote a very long piece about who that president was. Adam Serwer made that point earlier this morning. Obama’s most important advisers talked about a concept I called dignity promotion. (They didn’t come up with that one; and the fact that it remains obscure probably means they didn’t much like it, either.) I’ll re-quote Scott Gration and Sarah Sewall to explain the point, which at its heart is about root causes of instability:

Obama’s advisers argue [that] national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise — because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. “It’s about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe,” Gration says. “Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I’m concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years.”

Obama sees this as more than a global charity program; it is the anvil against which he can bring down the hammer on al-Qaeda. “He took many of the [counterinsurgency] principles — the paradoxes, like how sometimes you’re less secure the more force is used — and looked at it from a more strategic perspective,” Sewall says. “His policies deal with root causes but do not misconstrue root causes as a simple fix. He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy.”

Notice this is not about forswearing violence. It is about what to do over the long term to make violence less necessary. Obama said he would end a counterproductive war, and do so gradually. That’s exactly what he’s done. Obama said he would escalate a war he considered in the national interest. That’s exactly what he’s done.

Now: the other side of the Obama Doctrine, as I called it, was a meta-point about ending the politics of fear — the mindset, Obama said in a January 2008 debate, that got us into Iraq in the first place. There I think it’s fair to say that is, at the most generous, an unfulfilled goal. But I see a lot of Samantha Power in this section of the speech:

This brings me to a second point – the nature of the peace that we seek. For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.

It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.

And yet all too often, these words are ignored. In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development. And 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. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. 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.

If America embraces that radical notion, then we will have gone a long way to the end of the politics of fear.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman