Friday, December 11, 2009

Soaring Realism

It was interesting to hear the reactions to President Obama’s Nobel speech; he garnered praise from people on the right, including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, and criticism from some on the left who thought he was channeling George W. Bush with his talk about dealing with evil in the world. The president himself acknowledged that he was in a difficult position of being both new to the job and accepting the prize in the shadow of far more accomplished predecessors, and the cold fact that he has just ordered an escalation of a war.

What came across is that President Obama realizes that while it is one thing to aspire to the best in all of us and appeal to the hope that we all have for peace and freedom, it’s the real world out there and that it’s his job to deal with the harsh realities that come with it.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

What I think is interesting is that the president’s pronouncement as what is being called “the Obama doctrine” is being greeted as something new by pundits and commentators. I don’t know if they haven’t been paying attention or they’ve allowed their own vision of what they thought Barack Obama stood for to cloud the realism of the fact that Mr. Obama was neither the weak-kneed apologist that the neocons paint him, nor the iron-willed socialist dictator the teabaggers chant about. I have never doubted that he was not a pacifist or unwilling to send the military into battle, and while it’s a refreshing change from the bullying tactics of previous administrations — we’ll kick your ass if you look at us funny — it’s not all love, peace, and Woodstock nation, either. It is more a 21st century version of John F. Kennedy’s proclamation that we must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

Simply put, it’s one thing to hope for world peace and an end to inequality, but it will never happen, and anyone who thinks it will is deluding themselves. That doesn’t mean we stop working for it. After all, we are an optimistic species. We still believe in “Happy New Year” and “Next year in Jerusalem.” Sometimes it has all the hope of Charlie Brown kicking the football, but we do keep trying.