Theodore Roosevelt, a magnanimous, larger-than-life President who won a Nobel Peace Prize during wartime and spoke eloquently -- though not necessarily cohesively -- on the relationship between peace and the use of force, coined the term: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
Our current President's rudderless foreign policy, as exemplified by his Nobel acceptance speech yesterday, could be summed up as: "Waffle Wildly, and Carry a Big Speech."
Granted, it is not Barack Obama's fault that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, as he is currently sending 30,000 young Americans to a place where they will most likely spend a good deal of their time killing people, it does put him in a rather awkward position.
Given the circumstances, it is understandable that Obama's speech upon accepting the vaunted prize would be rife with contradictions. But what emerged was possibly the biggest mess of verbiage that our eloquent CIC has yet delivered on a public stage.
Its difficult to condense so many contradictory statements into such little space. George Orwell might have summarized it best with his classic axiom: "War is Peace." But personally, I prefer the more robust analogy of a high school road trip.
Imagine, if you will, that Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, George Bush, The Chinese Government, the U.N., the World Court, Aung San Suu Kyi, Richard Nixon, Chairman Mao, the rape victims of Darfur, and 3 million dead Vietnamese are all packed into a school bus on a road trip. And Barack is that gangly, awkward, Anthony Michael Hall-ic member of the Breakfast Club who -- in his desire to fit in with everyone -- just can't decide who to sit with.
According to President Obama, he rides on the shoulders of King and Gandhi. And, like King and Gandhi, he thinks Violence is Bad with a capital B. And as he spends a few eloquent and moving moments telling us about the horrors that violence inflicts on this world and how we have a responsibility to our future generations to move away from it, you can almost feel King and Gandhi flush with pride.
But of course, sometimes violence is necessary. Because there are evil people in this world.
This is the part where Barack gets up from his seat next to King and Gandhi and finds a waiting vacancy next to former President Bush. Granted, he never used the word "evildoers." But he was very, very close.
So, the President says, we should be able to use violence when we need to. But we should be "just" about it.
And, he adds, as he shuffles awkwardly through the ranks of the World Court and the UN, shaking hands as he goes, we should definitely put standards in place to govern the use of such violence.
But on the other hand, he qualifies, returning quickly to the comfort of Bush's side and throwing Dick Cheney a high five -- he still reserves the right to violate those standards unilaterally whenever he wants.
To please the small band of American tourists on the bus who are waving little flags and sipping Budweiser out of their headgear, Barack does not forget to remind us of America's inherent awesomeness. And apparently, a good deal of our awesomeness is because -- according to what can only be described as a historical gaffe -- we've "never fought a war against democracy." (Cue muffled cries of protest from the Chileans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, 1950s Iranians, and Haitians on the bus....)
And, all things considered, given the challenges that we face, we're doing pretty damn good. We know we're doing pretty good because -- partly as a result of our great leadership -- there hasn't been a Third World War. Things have gotten far more just since the end of the Second War, says Barack, and, if there happen to be three million dead Vietnamese and Cambodians piled in the back of the bus, he hasn't seemed to notice.
However, he does acknowledge, sidling up to the sole representative of Amnesty International that somehow managed to obtain a seat, that even though we are doing pretty good, there are still nasty places like Burma that deny freedom. (Quick headnod to the rape victims of Darfur). But that said, he gushes -- making a quick u-turn to join the mirthless sociopaths in the red-starred and olive uniforms who are trying to muscle their way across the whole front section of the bus -- China is an amazing place because... they've made a lot of people richer. And they now communicate directly with open societies. Even though they aren't open themselves. But still, there are places where protesters are repressed every day (umm... see "China"). But those places should be warned. They will have to change. Or... Barack will get up and sit with someone else for at least the next five minutes.
Here endeth the meandering.
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.
Such a muddled picture demands real leadership. We simply cannot sit with everyone on the bus. We need to decide whether those laws that were laid down after the Second World War are immutable truths carved in stone or if they are convenient guidelines to be dumped on a whim; and if they are immutable truths, which indeed they should be, then we need to abide by them, and encourage others to do so, every chance we get. That means no unilateral invasions. And no coddling totalitarian regimes.
As he summarized his speech with his typical triple-symphony of heart-lifting anecdotes, Barack intoned:
"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.
But if the only defining quality of his path is that it lies squarely in the middle of everyone on the bus, then others -- with the audacity to act -- will surely make his path for him.