Yesterday President Obama gave a speech at the Palais des Beaux Arts center in Brussels. His ostensible audience was the European Union chiefs. His intended audience was all the second-echelon Great Powers (minus Russia and China). Some phrases at Brussels showed the usual signs of his workmanship:
I say this as the president of a country that looked to Europe for the values that are written into our founding documents and which spilled blood to ensure that those values could endure.
Those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonists across an ocean.
Dizzying change opens the door of opportunity to the marginalized.
We've never met these people, but we know them. Their voices echo calls for human dignity that rang out in European streets and squares for generations.
Freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny, because that is what forever stirs in the human heart.
Read those sentences in order and you pretty much have the plot. The stately march of eloquent platitudes, with a dash of humility and an echo of Lincoln like stardust on his sleeve -- it is the pattern we have come to know in many settings. And it prompts a thought. The president might at this point consider the value of not being inspirational.
Obama thinks of speech-making as one of his most important functions. But all of his major speeches have a peculiar quality, at once calming and stirring, emollient and assertive. He does not hesitate to provoke large collective actions in which he cannot participate.
The gap between Obama's words and actions has now become one of the identifying marks of his presidency. Very little can be done about this; it is simply part of his temperament. But some people around him, along with mainstream opinion makers in the United States -- whom Obama scorns but listens to as closely as any president -- have begun to encourage an "activist" remedy. They say President Obama ought to live up to the bigness of his rhetorical promises, especially his promises of violent action in foreign affairs. This advice is particularly favored by people who want the United States to embark on more wars, more secret raids and assassinations, and more subversion of governments that fail to cooperate with the U.S. Obama followed their advice once, in Libya, where his commandment, "Gaddafi must go," committed him to armed action. He ordered a war against Gaddafi's government under cover of NATO. Though the disastrous result has been spoken of softly in the United States, the truth is that the Libya war belongs to the same family as Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has made for a political climate far more hospitable to terrorism throughout the Greater Middle East. Obama is being worked up to another Libya (with some help from his love of stirring words) -- but this time in a region not yet engulfed in violent protests and wars.
The Brussels speech aimed to address the supposed danger to Eastern Europe of a possible Russian military movement on Ukraine. This is an issue only because of the eastward expansion of NATO -- an expansion which suggested to Russia that the U.S. starting in 1990 took Eastern Europe to be a sphere of influence in which we could legitimately oppose Russia: first by out-trading them and then, if necessary, outgunning them. Recall that the whole reason-for-being of NATO was the Cold War. With the fall of Soviet Communism, NATO lost its evident justification. The continuation of such a war entity, beyond the close of the war it was meant for, left NATO answerable to pleas by countries of the former Soviet bloc which asked to join as members. The result was an acute and deliberate humiliation to Russia. No defensive motive could be assigned for the expansion. Its only long-term utility lay in demonstrating that the United States now owned the world; and that the first thing we would do with our unrivaled power was to back Russia against the wall.
All circumstances taken together, the eastward expansion of NATO, the work of 25 years and four administrations, has been the most dangerous and misjudged work of diplomacy of the last generation. And one of the architects of that expansion, during the Clinton administration, was Tom Donilon: a favorite counselor to President Obama, and until recently his National Security Adviser.
In detail, Obama's Brussels oration bore a striking resemblance to his Nobel Prize speech of 2009. Yesterday's effort was shorter and less pompous, but, in Brussels as in Oslo, Obama's words again shone with the patina of American superiority. The attitude emerged most starkly where he went furthest to disown it: "We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices." Do we remember those sacrifices? How exactly have we shown that we honor them -- in which administration and by what series of actions?
If President Obama wanted to help us remember, he could have cited some numbers. Four hundred thousand Americans died in the Second World War: a terrible and frightening number. Twenty million Russians died -- one Russian out of eight. Educated Europeans know this. Few Americans of any generation know it. And many thousands of those deaths were at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers fighting enthusiastically on the Nazi side.
Obama's speech in Brussels made a single, passing, doubtful mention of fascism (a word never used and its meaning hardly acknowledged in American politics). He treated the presence of neo-fascists as an improbable allegation about the recent demonstrations in Ukraine. Very likely, the far-right presence in the protest was smaller than Vladimir Putin claimed, and just as likely it was larger than the U.S. state department pretended. But not to speak of the far-right elements there, in a speech affecting to convey some awareness of the sweep of European history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, was an abridgment scarcely to be credited.
The president's righteous rebuke carried all the way into a surprising comparison between the U.S. bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq and the Russian annexation of Crimea. Both acts were done in defiance of international law. But President Obama now prefers to speak of "international norms" (where he himself is permitted to define the norms). The NATO bombing of Libya, on the Obama index, was normal and commendable. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the creation of Kosovo were the paradigm of international generosity as embodied by a coalition of the willing. By contrast, Russia's action in Crimea was a punishable aberration.
In this speech, Obama went so far as to assert that the American invasion of Iraq was at heart an act of international good will:
Russia has pointed to America's decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there.
But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq's territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.
What history books has he been reading? Bush and Blair sought U.N. approval for military action against Iraq, but their Azores statement, on the brink of Shock and Awe, was issued precisely to deny the necessity of a U.N. vote on what they were going to do anyway. They dodged that second vote because they feared it would not go in their favor. The international authorities most trusted at the time, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, believed that with "a couple of months more" they would have completed their inspections. They had found no weapons of mass destruction in any search before the war began on March 19, 2003, and they believed on good evidence that they could secure Iraq against such a future threat. Bush and Blair answered their request to continue the inspections by a contrary command: pack up and go home, we are going to bomb.
Obama's soft-focus comparison of the nine-year-long Iraq war and the two-week action in Crimea must have astonished his listeners. For the EU leaders, whatever their interests and whatever their bias, know that the annexation of Crimea was a response to something that actually happened: a protest in Ukraine, followed by a coup, with elections promised by a self-appointed provisional government in order to assure the beginnings of a tenable democracy. No humane person can fail to wish the Ukrainians political happiness and a freedom from corruption which thus far neither West-leaning nor East-leaning politicians in that country have allowed. But those who ascended with the triumph of the protest and formed the provisional government were anti-Russian by declaration and consistent policy. To repeat: Putin's resort to illegal force was a response to actual events. The 2003 war on Iraq was a response to two things that never happened, things the makers of the war had reason to know had never happened: namely Saddam Hussein's supposed revival of a nuclear program that was long abandoned, and his nonexistent alliance with Al-Qaeda. Dick Cheney made both charges, and George W. Bush repeated both. The first was based on a forged document, the second on false testimony from a discredited source.
Cheney and Bush and their secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, wanted the war in March 2003 so that they could end it by July 2003. With luck, they would move on to Iran and Syria. They wanted a fast war and they were determined to have it, no matter what the obstacles in the shape of Iraqi defiance or "international norms." This was plain by 2005 for anyone who cared to see; and it is plain to the world in 2014. For the president of the United States to say otherwise can only reinforce the suspicion that his knowledge of history, even the history he has lived, is weak and impressionistic.
Another difference between Iraq and Ukraine has to do with the "unimaginable sacrifices" that Obama has shown an interest in elsewhere. Fewer than 50 persons, thus far, have been killed in the protests in Ukraine and the Russian takeover of Crimea; most of them shot by snipers in the Maidan whose provenance and identity remain unknown. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the U.S. bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq; and they are still dying today.
President Obama offered his audience in Brussels an account of the formation of Kosovo that was equally abridged and innocent of the relevant facts. He started the history at the Serbian expulsion of Kosovar civilians and not, where in fact it began, with the attacks on Serbian forces by the Kosovo Liberation Army in the mid-1990s. "NATO only intervened," Obama said, "after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years." Once again, this is not merely partial, it is demonstrably false. Most of the killing happened during and after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and it happened partly as a consequence of the NATO bombing.
How to sum up the likely effect of yesterday's speech? Obama went to Brussels to affirm his authority as the standard-bearer of American exceptionalism. In the process, he felt obliged to bring up-to-date the rewriting of history that such an extraordinary doctrine requires. The policy elite has got its narrative, and he is its best-known presenter for the time being. Accordingly, in Brussels he recounted a heroic history extending from the close of Cold War to the present. Its high point, for conservatives, is "the defeat of the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan and American victory in the Cold War." Its high point for liberals is the bombing of Yugoslavia and the creation of Kosovo. Both parties agree that the U.S. won peace by means of war. Yet a main result of that triumph was the eastward expansion of NATO, a military alliance. This looks more like war than peace. Another result of the triumph was the construction of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the largest American base to be built since the end of the Vietnam War. This, too, looks more like war than peace.
According to the bipartisan consensus, the U.S. never does wrong but with just cause, and with good effects in the long run. Obama in Brussels supplied the latest gloss by treating Iraq today as a liberated country, free to determine its fate. Even in that case, as he explained to Europe, America proved its underlying greatness: if the war was launched on a fraudulent pretext, nevertheless it spurred a "vigorous debate." Doubtless this meant that people who opposed the war may have been spied on, or, if they were foolish enough to protest at a national party convention, may have been rounded up by police, but few have been kept in prison. We are superior to Russia in that respect, and should not be sparing of self-congratulations.
In the silliest sentence of the speech, Obama regretted the attempt by Russia to return to "the old way of doing things [in order] to regain a foothold in this young century." We are the young and good, he meant, and we must expel the old. It is true that Vladimir Putin's act of annexation by military force was an old story. The strong do these things to the weak; they do it because they can: this was written long ago in the Melian dialogue of Thucydides. As applied to the years since 1990, when the U.S. has become the most feared country in world, few outside the United States would find it self-evident to suppose that we generally side with the weak, the young, and the good, for the reasons we avow, driven by the love of peace and a respect for human dignity.
From the top of the government on down, is it too much to ask that we stop telling these stories? As we look forward to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, might it not instead be a time to tell ourselves the truth about any nation that wants to live in peace in the world of nations?
David Bromwich teaches English at Yale and is the author most recently of Moral Imagination.