Friday, December 11, 2009

Fineman: "In Oslo, Obama Sounds Like Bush"

Howard Fineman:
The Norwegians weren't applauding the peace-prize acceptance speech President Obama just gave in Oslo and I know why. The speech in many ways could have been written for, and delivered by, a man they loathe: George W. Bush.
Sure the speech had the pleasant stuff about banning torture and the value of negotiations, and Obama gave a nod to Martin Luther King, whose own Nobel speech in 1964 was a paean to pacifism. But Obama wanted to make it clear that he was NOT Martin Luther King. He was a commander in chief leading two wars, confronting an implacable terrorist foe, burdened by a wobbly job rating and a dysfunctional Congress, and facing a dicey electoral future for his party in 2010 and himself in 2012.

So Obama accepted most of the fundamental premises of his maligned predecessor's post-9/11 theory of the world. Yes, Obama said, there is evil in the world and it must be confronted. Al Qaeda is evil, he said. No, "Holy War"—jihad—can never be a "just" war. America not only has a duty but self-interest in spreading free speech and freedom of religion around the world, even in places and cultures that seem to reject it, because those values are "universal."

There was more. The word "terrorism"—recently absent from Obama's foreign-policy speeches—made a comeback, big time. He praised the peace-making maneuvers of two Republican presidents (Nixon and Reagan) and of Pope John Paul. Obama challenged Europeans and others to stand up to Iran and North Korea—which, he said indirectly but clearly, want to develop nuclear capability so that they could "arm themselves for nuclear war." He was careful to avoid anything more than the most anodyne reference to the conflict between Israel and Arabs—a conflict Europeans depict as a one-sided saga of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, whom Obama didn't mention.

And in the theatrics of the visit to Oslo - skipping dinners and receptions; flying in and out and barely doing a drop by to pick up his award - Obama (a gracious guy) managed to seem rude and impatient with ceremony in a way that Bush, back in Dallas, had to admire. It was as if Obama was saying: even THIS president doesn't do canap├ęs and champagne with European peaceniks! Hoo-ah! After the speech, Karl Rove was crowing, if you can crow by Twitter. "Tweeted that Gerson and Thiessen had gone to work at the Obama White House," he e-mailed me—Gerson and Thiessen being the two neo-con wordsmiths in the Bush shop.

The fascinating question of course is: why did Obama give the speech he gave? Surely there is something about reading those morning CIA briefings concerning Al Qaeda (something Bush famously didn't always do) that concentrates the mind. There's that hoary old line that conservatives like to use: "a conservative is a liberal mugged by reality." But there is some truth to it.

Obama's speech is not that surprising, actually. Even though his breakthrough speech was the one he gave against the war in Iraq in 2002, he doesn't have the reflexive fear of the use of military force that so burdened Baby Boomer leaders. Even in 2002, and certainly in later years, he has made it clear that he views the American involvement in Afghanistan as not only strategically justified but also morally justifiable. Many of his early supporters didn't listen. Having just decided to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, he had no choice but to make the case he made—however uncomfortable it was to do so in Oslo.

Of course American politics was involved. Obama is having enough trouble with the conservatives in his own party—the Blue Dogs and various "gangs of"—to discomfit them culturally by hobnobbing with the Norwegian socialists who chose him for the Nobel award. Obama has health care and climate change and financial regulation and a whole lot of "government" to sell Congress. It's bad enough to represent "the Washington power elite" without having to be seen in the admiring embrace of Europeans in white tie and tails.

Remember: Obama won the White House in good measure because of swing voters in states such as Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia. Look at Oslo through their eyes, and you can see why Obama went late and left early and sounded like a Texan. Not to mention the fact that fewer than one in four American voters think he deserves the prize.

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