Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama's Speech

President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Cairo today that attempted to shape a new course in the development of American foreign policy. Before I delve into that address, however, I first want to briefly review some other paradigm-shifting speeches delivered by presidents on foreign policy.

The first significant foreign policy speech of this kind was, appropriately, delivered by our nation's first president. Shortly before leaving office, President George Washington delivered a Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, which discussed the dangers posed to the young republic by allowing itself to get involved in "foreign entanglements". Although often misapplied to modern situations by latter-day isolationists, the message of non-intervention in the business of other countries was well-taken at the time - America was a young nation with an underdeveloped infrastructure and military, and involvement in foreign conflicts at such an early stage of its existence would have been detrimental to its welfare, if not entirely destructive. Washington's speech, along with another one to be covered in the following paragraph, shaped the tone of American foreign policy for the first one-hundred-and-twenty years of its existence.

The next significant presidential speech was that delivered by President James Monroe in his seventh State of the Union Address on December 2, 1823. Although reaffirming the refusal to get involved in the imperialist struggles of European powers proclaimed by Washington more than a quarter-century earlier, Monroe's declaration (essentially written for him by his brilliant Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) took that doctrine to the next level by arguing that America's lot was the same as that of the other new nations of the Western Hemisphere (all of which were either currently owned by major European empires or had only recently broken free from them). The Monroe Doctrine established the principle that while America would as a matter of policy tend only to its own business and avoid meddling in the affairs of other countries, it recognized that its welfare was dependent on the sovereignty and security of the other countries of the Western Hemisphere, a dependence that was mutually recognized and reciprocated. Consequently it would perceive a threat to one power as being a threat to all. This doctrine was upheld by many subsequent presidents, including Grover Cleveland when preventing the British Empire from stealing Venezuelan land in 1895, William McKinley as a validation of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and Theodore Roosevelt to justify various other American measures in Latin America. Although Americans would occasionally violate the spirit of this idea by blatantly imperialistic ventures against weaker nations (most notably the Mexican-American war of 1846, which was supported by the "Manifest Destiny" beliefs of President James Polk and his administration but notably opposed by then-congressman John Quincy Adams), the essence of Washington's 1796 speech and Monroe's 1823 speech defined American foreign policy from our nation's inception through the First World War.

Although President Woodrow Wilson had made genuine efforts to avoid American involvement in the First World War, even campaigning for re-election in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War", German bellicosity toward Americans who dared trade with or in other ways maintain relations with Britain rendered our intervention necessary. Yet Wilson, far from being a warmonger, wanted to earn a role in history as the "Prince of Peace"; indeed, as the war continued, he found himself suffering from agonizing migraines as he contemplated the loss of life and untold suffering being brought about by his own actions. The cerebral progressive was not one to simply accept this situation quietly, however. On January 8, 1918, in a speech delivered in person to a joint session of Congress (presidents had refrained from addressing Congress directly since the days of Washington, and Wilson was the first president since the eighteenth century to break that precedent), Wilson delivered his now famous "Fourteen Points" speech. In that speech, he advocated a course in foreign policy not seen since the insightful prescriptions of Machiavelli (not the author of the skullduggery-lauding "The Prince", but the burgeoning internationalist). He argued that, as a means of preventing future wars, the nations of the world should join an international organization dedicated to the preservation of world peace and the guarantee of national integrity for all of its members. Furthermore, he provided specific steps for the ending of the current world war that would have been magnanimous toward the defeated parties and resolved the plethora of regional conflicts that had caused the global conflagration in the first place. This speech represents one of the great tragedies of world history - because Wilson was unable to get British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to keep to the principles of the speech when creating the peace treaty at Versailles, and then failed to convince the American Congress (led by isolationist Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts) to even join the League of Nations proposed by the address, a century that could have been marked by world peace and the proliferation of human rights and economic prosperity was instead marred by a Great Depression, a Second World War, a Cold War, and countless other bloody conflicts, all of which could have been prevented had Wilsonian idealism been allowed to take effect. The defeat of his vision caused Wilson to finally suffer the physical collapse that had long hovered over him as an ominous possibility; a stroke in 1919 left him paralyzed on one whole side of his body, and he would not live to see the dream for which he so valiantly fought implemented, albeit more than two decades too late, by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War Two.

The next speech to be covered is that of President Harry Truman. Delivered on March 12, 1947 and dubbed "The Truman Doctrine", Truman recognized that the post-World War Two globe was hardly peaceful merely because of the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese empire. Communism, as manifested in the Soviet Union and its various puppet regimes, presented a grave threat to human freedom and international stability, and recognizing this, Truman pledged to dedicate America to fighting for democracy and against Communist encroachments throughout the world as a means of preserving American national interest. It was this doctrine that ultimately lead to America's position in its Cold War with the Soviet Union, and led to both triumphs (such as the eventual dissolution of the USSR) and tragedies (such as the bloody conflict in Vietnam). With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the speech was rendered moot, although its ideas not only helped bring the vision of Woodrow Wilson to life, but also prevented a Third World War by arguing that it would only contain communism to the nations where it currently existed, rather than take the more aggressive approach advocated by some and eliminate it even from where it currently existed.

On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush attempted to create a new phase in American foreign policy with his "Axis of Evil" speech. Presented vis-a-vis his first State of the Union address to Congress, and delivered a mere 140 days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, it articulated a unilateralist approach to dealing with Islamofascism and other contemporary threats to global stability and human freedom that has ultimately proved unsuccessful. The basic philosophy articulated by Bush was, on first glance, a mere extension of the Truman Doctrine - to prevent the spread of sinister forces that threatened both Americans and free people throughout the world, the Bush administration would apply a policy of "zero tolerance" that would ultimately lead to their extinguishment. The fatal flaw in the Bush Doctrine, however, was its faulty assumptions about the world outside of neo-conservative think tanks: It assumed that American democratic ideals were universally esteemed and would thus be embraced in other nations if only permitted; it assumed that American military superiority would guarantee easy victories over all potential adversaries, ignoring that the presence of military superiority did not mean that Americans would morally approve of using the full extent of that power in order to win its wars, and that sans the full use of our strength, the duration and cost of life caused by the wars necessitated by unilateralism would eventually become political impediments; it grossly misgauged the reaction of world opinion to American bellicosity, and then falsely assumed that America's best interests were independent of those of the world community; and perhaps most significant of all, it ignored that alienating Muslim countries, with their millenium-and-a-half old religious belief system held by one-quarter of the world's population, was far more dangerous than alienating Communists, whose ideology was a mere century-old, was only held by scattered radicals, and which possessed international power only due to their ability to rise to power in and then brutally oppress much larger national communities. In short, while the climate of ideological polarization, international chaos, and fear epitomized by the "Axis of Evil" speech ultimately helped Bush win re-election in 2004, its message and resultant policies were proven tragically wrong by history. The legacy of this speech in Afghanistan, Iraq, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, needs no further elaboration.

And now Obama has delivered his speech, which I believe will rank alongside those of Washington, Monroe, Wilson, Truman, and Bush as being key in the shaping of the course of American foreign policy. While I am tempted to summarize it here, as I have done the other five speeches, I think it is important for all thoughtful Americans to read the speech themselves and formulate their own conclusions as to its content. That is why I will only briefly say that I think the approach President Obama has taken toward the Muslim world - by openly acknowledging their legitimate grievances on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq while simultaneously criticizing such pervasive problems within the Muslim world as anti-Semitism and sexism - is not only the morally correct one, but the one most likely to bring about meaningful peace both between our nation and the Muslim peoples and within the Muslim world itself (most notably in Israel). For those who desire a more detailed look at the speech, I have provided a link to it below (as well as to the other documents referenced in this article).

George Washington's Farewell Address:

James Monroe's "Monroe Doctrine":

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points Speech:

Harry Truman's "Truman Doctrine":

George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" Speech:

Barack Obama's Cairo Speech:

Addenda: Notice the reaction from the Muslim audience after President Obama discusses the hardships suffered by the Jewish people throughout history, including and especially the Holocaust. He waits for two seconds for the anticipated applause (which followed all other such pauses throughout the address), and none was forthcoming. An expression of disgust lingers on his countenance for about a second, he accepts this, and proceeds where he left off.
This speech was revolutionary, but there is still much work to be done.

1 comment:

MAX said...

President Obama's landmark speech in Cairo was perfectly constructed, well-articulated, and to be quite honest, ballsey. With the grace of a professional tight-rope walker, the president confronted the most controversial issues pertaining to international relations in the Middle East head on. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the promotion of democracy and women's rights, he touched upon every relevant topic and never missed a beat. An article in the New York Times' Sunday Week in Review said that this is the most significant step forward in this eight-year-long War on Terror. This is a war best waged with ideology, not military aggression wherever we see fit. Despite the fact that military power will be necessary in the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we need to win back the hearts and minds of Muslims all around the world. In one speech, Obama refuted every failed aspect of the Bush doctrine.

According to the same Times article, "Forceful Words and Fateful Realities" by Rod Nordland, a year ago Osama bin Laden's popularity eclipsed the king of Saudi Arabia, but now 88% of Saudis support their government hunting down members of Al Quaeda within their borders. The speech is an extraordinary step forward in the U.S.' relations with the Middle East and the rest of the world.

However, numerous obstacles still stand in the way, especially with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem isn't so much the fighting between different camps, but the infighting among each group between those who want a peaceful accord, and those opposed to one. Moderate Israelis are pitted against radical settlers in the West Bank, who compare members of the Israeli army to the Jewish councils who worked closely with the Nazis. Members of the moderate Palestinian party Fatah face a struggle with the radical party Hamas that does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Obama has a big agenda ahead of him, and will have to win the minds of both political leaders and ordinary citizens.

Here are links to the two New York Times articles pertaining to the subject:

"Forceful Words and Fateful Realities"

"The Divisions Among Israelis and Palestinians"