President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech was disappointing on several key issues. At the most fundamental level, it distorted history and misstated the nature of the enemy we face in al-Qaeda and its allies. These rhetorical failures, coming in the middle of a protracted and difficult struggle, which are always taxing for democracy, have serious implications; they cause real harm.
As far as the re-writing of history is concerned, there was the predictable, and increasingly tiresome, criticism of the Bush administration — particularly unfortunate when speaking to a global audience in a foreign city. In this regard, in describing the need to use force legitimately — a key element of both the just-war theory and international law governing self-defense — President Obama identified the war in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War as examples. The 2003 Iraq War was conspicuously absent from this list. Indeed, in case his listeners somehow missed the point, the only thing that the president said about the Iraq War is that it “is winding down.”
Going beyond the events of the last few years, the president provided an erroneous, but very politically correct, version of how men have tried to leash the dogs of war. For example, he mentioned that “the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations — an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this prize,” implying that this rejection had something to do with the league’s profound failure to maintain the peace. However, few serious students of the league would argue that it would or could have fulfilled Wilson’s hopes even with American participation. Only if the Western powers has been willing to use force in the early in the 1930s could the Second World War have been averted; none were — including the United States. Let’s just say that, if Winston Churchill had perused this portion of the speech, his disdain would have been manifest.
Going back even farther in history, political correctness remained the president’s dominant leitmotif. In trying to provide some historical context for the current wave of Jihadist violence, Obama noted that “these extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded.” In fact, the Crusades were no more or less violent and cruel than any other form of medieval warfare and, in contrast to the naked aggression of al-Qaeda, the Crusaders’ stated goal was to recover areas that had been violently conquered during the first wave of Islamic Jihad, from the 7th to 11th centuries. Whether this effort was justified is a question for medievalists.
More to the point, the Crusades have nothing at all to do with the rise and spread of radical Islamicist ideologies and groups today, which can more logically be linked to the tensions and resentments unleashed in the Arab, and broader Islamic, world by its rapid development and modernization since World War II — along with a heavy dose of old-fashioned power politics. References to the Crusades and Crusaders are nothing but propaganda, and apologetic statements by Western leaders simply serve to legitimize the preposterous notion that today’s Islamicist violence is somehow understandable, if not justifiable, because of events nearly 1,000 years in the past. The Crusaders are dead; their society is extinct. Moreover, to admit, even indirectly, that ancient wrongs — real or perceived — can somehow validate contemporary violence opens a Pandora’s Box. History is replete with un-righted wrongs for which people ought not to fight and die today.
As far as the threat assessment is concerned, President Obama’s speech did not do it much justice. It is true that “modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocence on a horrific scale,” but the challenge comes from more than a few small men. Outsized rage there certainly is, but the president continues to hesitate in acknowledging how compelling the Islamist ideology is to significant numbers of people, who see it as a way of checking what they see as the evils of Western predominance. Moreover, their leadership is motivated not by blind anger, but by a geopolitical vision that puts their ideological and religious beliefs (not to mention themselves), rather than Western-style democracy, in control of the world’s destiny.
In addition to underestimating the potency and the ideological basis of the threat, the speech also understates its malignancy. For example, in discussing the just-war theory, the president laments the fact that even in just wars, like the war to defeat the Third Reich and the Axis Powers, the principle of proportionality, designed to limit damage to civilians, was not always observed by either side. It would have been far more useful and appropriate to remind his audience that the enemy in the War on Terror deliberately operates without any normative or legal restraints, intentionally attacking civilians as a means of gaining both tactical and strategic advantage. Here, he missed a real opportunity to make the case for America’s struggle to defend democracy, pluralism, and law against simple barbarism.
— David B. Rivkin Jr. & Lee A. Casey are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. They served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations.