Friday, December 25, 2009

Naming Evil as a Premise of U.S. Foreign Policy and Obama's Nobel Speech


2. Commenter "noahkgreen":

I am surprised that Cohen and Loury seem to have missed the entire point of Obama's Nobel speech, and all because they get fixated on the word 'evil'.

They argue that Obama's statement that there is evil in world shows that Obama believes the U.S. to be inherently just. Yet this is decidedly not Obama's point! Obama believes that the U.S. must restrain and be judicious in its power because it is capable of such great injustice!
Or, as the relevant quote from the speech goes:

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.I am saddened that Cohen and Loury have completely ignored this point and have instead, decided to be fixated on why the word 'evil' makes them profoundly uncomfortable--instead of engaging with the whole speech.

3. Me:

To Noahkgreen:

I just finished listening to these guys, both of whom I have a lot of time for, even though I don’t have time these days for much of anything. I then thought I’d glance at a few comments to see what was cooking.

I stopped at the first one—yours.I stopped because I never took from anything they said (or I just plain missed it) their view that Obama asserted in his Nobel speech the inherent nature of American goodness. Nor did I take from anything they said (or I just plain missed it) a line of reasoning that goes: Obama said there is evil in the world; therefore that shows he believes, to use your posted words, "America is inherently just".

My understanding of what they said is that it is not helpful in analyzing, or explaining, America going to war, or waging it, to speak of needing to defeat evil. That high moral rhetoric distracts us, I heard them to say, from a sober and explicit assessment of the reasons for war. And at West Point, I thought they said, those reasons were woefully lacking.

I think I disagree with Cohen and Loury to this extent: there ought be nothing wrong with calling evil evil. There ought be nothing wrong with calling as evil, for an instance amongst many, fanatical Muslim extremists who, for an instance amongst many, make vulnerable civilians direct and explicit military targets. And there ought be nothing wrong with setting as a foundation for American policy the recognition of evil where it is coincident with the necessary vindication of high American interests.

A problem for Obama in doing so may be the elusive vagaries of the reasons for American war policy in Afghanistan; which is to say, it may be, for Afghanistan, the innate difficulty of cogently answering Cohen’s two good questions: should America engage the battle; and if so, can America win, can it achieve goals justifying the inevitable maiming and loss of life, the destruction, the financial costs and other costs?

So my question is whether Cohen and Loury are making a specific point of the unhelpful invocation of evil by Obama concerning Afghanistan or are they inveighing against the invocation of evil as justification for war as a general proposition? The first branch of that question is, at a minimum, a fair and arguable criticism. The second branch needs pruning and trimming.

I have not revisited Obama's Nobel speech since he made it. But, surely, his main point was not America’s and others’ need to recognize their fallibility. For, in itself, this says hardly anything at all though it sounds portentous: it is but a truism that no one sensible would or could disagree with.

Consider though Obama’s three general Nobel theses. The first is that at times a just war is the only way to a just peace. The second is that in waging such wars restraint is always necessary. And, finally, the third is that a wise foreign policy is comprised by a balanced and flexible pluralism of approaches ranging from quiet diplomacy to sanctions and other varying pressures and ultimately to war itself. In the advancement of these ideas over the course of his speech, the recognition of national fallibility has some good, important and moderating work to do.

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