Sunday, July 26, 2009

Comments on Obama inaugural address

A post by Professor Nacos on her blog last month, Lebanon Election Outcome and Obama’s Public Diplomacy, reminded me of my responses to Professor Nacos' January post about President Obama's inauguration, The Promise of America's and Obama's Patchwork Heritage.

My comments sandwich a response by Professor Nacos:
The issue at stake is perception, not reality. Obama expressed the same message as Bush. If anything, Obama's expressions of Christianity, American primacy, and leadership with American ideals in his inaugural address were *more* aggressive than Bush, in effect out-Bushing Bush. There was quite a bit of 'either with us or against us' sentiment in it, just not as plainly spoken as his predecessor.

The Bush administration made a dedicated effort to make clear that the War on Terror is not a war on Islam. While the enemy has used an unambiguous radical religious construct to sell their war since before 9/11, and (continue to) commit atrocities and sabotage our peace-building efforts since 9/11, President Bush responded by promoting Islam as a peaceful religion that can co-exist with Western modernity. However, President Bush was an uncharismatic public spokesman in the face of media and self-serving politicians who undermined our war and peace-building missions.

In reality, the ideology underpinning our War on Terror has not been religious, but progressive liberalism, where Bush was the inheritor of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy (although one can argue that, while secular, the roots of progressive liberalism are Christian). Unless President Obama has been extremely duplicitious, he will continue Bush's progressive liberalism, which means the reality of how we conduct the war won't change. Nor will it calm our enemies and other leaders tangibly threatened by American primacy and the newest 'Washington agenda'. This is, after all, a competition with real stakes.

Potentially, perception will change due to the transfer of power from the uncharismatic Bush to the charismatic Obama. But will the media help Obama in the same places they undermined Bush? That remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether Obama, with or without media help, can make a difference in the regions where we are competing for the war and peace.

Maybe, if we Americans are truly deterministic agents, then in the bottom-line, it matters less what they think of the war; it only matters what we think of it. In that case, President Obama's value will not be changing the war itself or how it's perceived by our competitors, but changing how we collectively think of it.

Posted by: Eric January 24, 2009 at 09:44 AM
Ah, Eric. You and I must have listened to different speeches on inauguration day.
The "war on terrorism" a la ex-president Bush is over. One cannot fight a war against non-state actors, indeed, such a declaration alone elevates terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda to a level they do not deserve.
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly stated, military might will not defeat terrorism--what is needed is a mix of hard and soft power. Secretary of State Clinton called that recently smart power.

Posted by: Brigitte January 24, 2009 at 10:17 AM


Again, a perception problem. Those who believe the War on Terror is over with the change of administration have failed to grasp its continual evolution since 9/11. What Gates, Clinton and many others (including Bush) have said is perfectly compatible with Bush's, and now Obama's, evolving War on Terror.

We only have to read the on-going discussions about 4th or 5th generation warfare, based on events, to understand the notion of "war" as applied to the War on Terror is very different than the traditional state-vs-state (or 3rd generation) definition we grew up with. The traditional understanding of war doesn't fit the War on Terror, and therefore, has been a stumbling block for people who've persistently misunderstood this war.

The War on Terror is and has been full-spectrum, while peace-building is and has been a cornerstone of the war ... at the same time, war is and has been a cornerstone of the peace-building. I agree the war/peace should involve many more agencies than the military, but the military's dominant role has been less due to policy preference than reality. The State Department, for example, which is based upon government-2-government negotiation and nation-state dominance, has been ill-suited for the current war. (That said, the War on Terror has proven fluid in that regard, eg, State presence in Iraq, under Ambassador Crocker, has been restored to prominence concurrently with the increasing stability and reach of the Iraqi government. Using what we learned in Iraq, we can hope for similar progress by State with the Karzai government in Afghanistan.) As we've discussed before, until traditional soft power agencies are able to operate in failed state or even stateless non-permissive environments and adjust their capabilities to it, then by default, our military will be the main applied soft power *and* hard power agency. We shouldn't prefer a full-spectrum role for the military, and the military certainly does not, but that's been dictated by reality, not a dogmatic choice by the former President. Our alternative? We witnessed our alternative in Somalia and Rwanda.

The evolving War on Terror is anything but over, but perhaps, it has become unrecognizable to proponents of traditional war. If the war requires renaming for more people to understand its full-spectrum nature and the realities of the agencies involved, then maybe we should rename the War on Terror. I just don't know there is a better descriptive term for it. Until we invent a better term, I still prefer "war" just for the level of commitment implied by the term.

As far as Obama's inaugural address, the beauty of it is that it offered something for most everyone. And yes, in places, it out-Bushed Bush. Re-read Obama's speech then go back and re-read Bush's speeches. Then consider how much of the content is effectively the same. Consider these examples:

"Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."
-- Did critics once accuse Bush of a simplistic bipolar framing and lack of nuance in the War on Terror?

"But in the words of Scripture ... This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."
-- !!! - as a non-religious American, I understand presidents routinely cite Christianity, notwithstanding ahistorical accusations of Bush, but Obama struck an eyebrow-raising fundamentalist, even evangelical, tone that I don't recall in the presidents of my lifetime.

"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation ... the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things ... This is the journey we continue today. ... Those ideals still light the world"
-- Invocation of the vigorous, even expansionist, progressive liberalism that underpinned our westward expansion, post-Civil War Reconstruction, entry in the world wars (v Fascism), Cold War compare/contrast (v Communism), the pre-Bush accusation of the US as a meddling ideologue hyperpower, and the current War on Terror. Obama fairly well dispelled any doubt that he, even more than Bush, is a liberal idealist.

"... to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more."

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

I can go on, Professor, but when I verge on quoting half or more of a speech, I may as well just refer you to the speech itself. Am I saying Obama is merely the logical continuation of Bush? In important ways, it appears that way so far; in other important ways, no, and I hope for the best in those areas, too. I agree with Obama that we do need to assess, innovate and re-invent ourselves so we can evolve for the 21st century, and not just rely on 20th century conventions. Under Bush, it appeared that the only significant areas of evolution were the military, our war/peace strategy, and possibly intelligence-gathering. It's up to Obama to build upon what Bush did right in those areas and be wary of the reactionaries who've opposed those changes, while also setting in motion changes in the important areas that Bush neglected to address.

I stand by what I said. The themes of Christianity, American primacy, and world leadership with American ideals in Obama's inaugural address out-Bushed Bush. I actually found it difficult to pull out a concise 'with us or against us' quote, because it was the basic premise of the foreign policy section of Obama's address. (It's a misperception that Bush preferred unilateralism, and we have hardly 'gone it alone' in any case; he was just unwilling to abandon the mission for want of sufficient multilateral consensus; even universal consensus, as we've learned to our frustration in Afghanistan, does not equate to sufficient multilateral commitment and investment.)

Obama's inaugural address was unreservedly liberal-hawkish. What stood out the most in the speech was that Obama was hardly circumspect about an aggressive transformative interventionist international role for America, what was called neo-conservative or liberal imperialism when pursued by the last administration. It appears President Obama, even more than his predecessor, desires that we change the world in our ideal image of ourselves. That's okay I guess, as long as folks, both the changers here and the changees abroad who were unwilling to change for ex-President Bush, are now willing to make the same change for a better American spokesman, the "patchwork" President Obama.

Posted by: Eric January 24, 2009 at 02:25 PM

Eric

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