Schrei on Obama’s Nobel Speech

Up at the Huffington Post, Josh Schrei has a provocative take on President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Schrei writes:

Obama’s speech, in all its wandering glory, smacked of the somewhat bewildered attempts of a true American son to reconcile his deep seated idealism against an almost impossible pragmatism. Along the way, it inadvertently summarized the great tragedy of American foreign policy since World War II — the inability to rectify our lofty ideals with what it is we actually do in the world, which, often times, really isn’t that positive and certainly isn’t that clear.

With a new President — who obviously has great eloquence, a discerning mind, and admirable vision but has both inherited the gaffes of his predecessors and has an almost pathological addiction to the middle of the road — we are faced with our most muddled picture yet… in which we understand the value of the ideals we helped put forward post Second World War, but also know that we currently stand in violation of many of them; in which we eloquently stand for freedom and the individuals right to it and at the same time obtusely see war and occupation as one of our main instruments of forwarding that right; in which our leader stands on an anti-war platform while signing troop deployment orders; and, perhaps most paradoxically, in which we understand that the rise of societies who have no interest in our carefully crafted goals of freedom — like China — are a real threat to the very existence of those goals, yet choose to help them every chance we get.

This is a pretty apt summary of the internal tensions found in Obama’s speech. But Schrei makes the tension more explicit as he moves to close:

“Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on.”

Generally, when men of character invoke such a scene, they do so because they actually intend to do something about it, not just because they are trying to please. And while President Obama has quoted this injustice, and made himself seem more sympathetic in doing so, and drawn out of us the emotions that make us feel that he is a person that really cares, the truth is that — as of yet — he is not doing a thing for this young protester.

Instead, his speechwriters capitalize on her suffering while simultaneously throwing accolades to her oppressors. (Again, see China)

At some point, this President will not be able to ride on the fumes of great — or in this case, not quite as great — speeches that play on the heartstrings of those of us who believe in justice, and will have to actively forge justice, if that is his road.

Now, as Josh points out, the tension is by no means limited to Obama. It has been a feature of every American president’s foreign policy since Truman. But coming from the lips of a young American president who has captured both our country’s and the world’s imagination to the point of being recognized for a Peace Prize in his first year in office, the tension grates harder than it might otherwise.

To put it a different way, Obama has to find ways to make sure that “change we can believe in” has less to do with the mechanical events of elections and more to do with actual realization of policy aspirations. It’s not enough to talk about the virtue of pro-democracy protesters in totalitarian regimes, especially when it comes (to pick one example) hand in hand with complete silence on China’s human rights abuses.  At some point, Obama has to stop being content with oration and start leading with the force of his actions.

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