Obama's Nobel speech: Sometimes war is necessary

An obligatory admission from a guy who just ordered 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, but still gratifying given the reality-based community’s eternal argument with reality on this point. The four best minutes are below but do read the full speech, as it’s sufficiently kaleidoscopic to inspire disagreement even among former Bushies like Peter Wehner (liked it) and David Frum (hated it). I feel about it the way I felt about his Afghanistan strategy: Expectations were so dovishly low that even a Hillary-esque “hawk with grave reservations” approach feels like a pleasant surprise.

But not entirely pleasant. The prose is often clunky, especially at the beginning — “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man” — and the keep-reaching-for-those-stars conclusion. (Writes Tom Maguire, “If platitudes were warheads Obama would have violated a treaty.”) Obama being Obama, the requisite self-aggrandizement vis-a-vis historical figures and subtle disparagement of the Iraq war are also present. Oh, and he also somehow managed to draw the lesson that Reagan achieved peace by agreeing to arms control deals, not by ramping up defense spending to the point where the Soviet economy exhausted itself in trying to keep pace.

The queasiest part:

Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All of these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more – and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.

As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we all basically want the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families…

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 faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For a self-styled realist and pragmatist — the money line in the clip is “I face the world as it is” — those bold-faced bits make The One sound an awful lot like Bush asserting that all people share a common desire for freedom. It’s vintage above-the-fray Obama, insisting that we’re all basically on the same side so let’s come together and organize this world community, darn it. But is it true? Is tough Russian and Chinese action on Iran a matter of waiting for their “moral imaginations” to blossom, or are they simply acting in their own self-interest by hedging on sanctions? Striving towards the perfection of the human condition — less war, less poverty — is a worthy goal, but only a sucker thinks it’s attainable.

But enough of the bad. Here’s the good, which begins by praising MLK’s and Gandhi’s methods — before rejecting them as unworkable in present circumstances.