Explaining the Unexplainable, Part I

      Who said this ?   War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”

     “And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

      “Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of “just war” was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.”

       “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

          It is hard to believe, but those uncharacteristic words were part of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (“Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize… my accomplishments are slight,” a suitably humble statement that is itself an exaggeration.) Do the words above sound like those of a talmid of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who railed against America, its wars, its “hubris,” its international “aggression and its “racism”?

       Not at all, and nor what followed in what was – at least in its first part – an eloquent articulation of the nobility of the use of arms in a just cause: “ I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

       “But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

     These were words more suited to Franklin Roosevelt (who fought World War II; in fairness, he died before its end so the Nobel Committee was off the hook), Harry Truman (who ended WW II and should have won), Winston Churchill (who obviously should have won), Ronald Reagan (whose policies precipitated the end of the Cold War, and certainly should have won), and perhaps even George W. Bush (whom decent people may yet respect for the courage in beginning the relentless struggle against radical Islam that less decent people would rather wish away). Any of those leaders could have – and probably did – deliver that speech. No wonder his audience greeted his remarks with stony silence.

    What possessed President Obama to laud the notion of a just war, and defend America’s conduct of just wars ? Certainly he had to have been a bit embarrassed over the distinction (see https://rabbipruzansky.com/2009/10/09/premature-congratulation) never before awarded to a person with such slender achievements in the field in which he was honored. He might have been even more discomfited by his delayed decision to order a surge of American forces in Afghanistan (a policy announced, after an inordinate delay, shortly before the Oslo ceremony). It must be weird to address a group of peaceniks just a few days after ordering 30,000 more troops to escalate a war – and odder still when that policy seems to duplicate that of the loathed and scorned predecessor whose name Obama could have mentioned (but, unsurprisingly, did not) in recognition for the just wars he waged. After all, he won the award in large part because he was the anti-George W. Bush. (The surge also reflects well on Obama. Even though he did not provide the number of troops requested by the commanding general, that is also not unprecedented. Generals, like fund-raisers, will always ask for more than they need, in the hope of getting what they need. In stable countries, the civilian government controls the military so decisions can be made that reflect a broader range of priorities, and not just one particular battle or war.)

     Did the speech intimate that Obama has suddenly become enamored of the projection of American power across the globe in order to advance American interests and values ? Not likely, as liberals gloat over the “post-imperial president,” oblivious to the potential consequences to a world that has grown accustomed to a United States that defends and promotes freedom throughout the world.

     It might have been – surely was, to some extent – a crass political calculation designed to boost his domestic standing. With Obama’s poll numbers in slow and steady decline, many Americans (granted, most of them not natural Obama supporters anyway) had tired of the President’s habitual apologizing for America’s “sins,” his bowing to foreign potentates, and his overt lack of pride in American accomplishments. This speech made amends for that. He could not make another anti-American speech abroad, and retain the respect of anyone but the hard-core left.

    It also spoke the truth as Jews see it. War is a necessary evil, “the beginning of redemption,” and often the only means of eradicating evil. In the Chanuka prayers, we even thank G-d for the “wars,” because they are the prelude to the salvation, redemption and all the miracles. To fight evil is a great good, and one that classical Christianity has unfortunately denied both in theory (in its pacific strain) and in practice, as Jews learned well for almost 19 centuries.

     Or maybe, one can hope, Obama has grown in office, and indeed is starting to see the world as it really is, and not simply as “Bush’s fault.” There is a virulent strain of wickedness in our world, and it must be confronted and crushed with the relentless weight of America’s might. To the extent that Obama identified that at Oslo marked that speech as a high point of his presidency; to the extent that his future policies reflect his new-found realism will determine the direction of America’s leadership and much of the world’s stability in the coming days.

3 responses to “Explaining the Unexplainable, Part I

  1. Rav Soloveitchik ztl concurs to thanking Hashem for wars- as Rav Shurkin brings down in Hararei Kedem on Chanukah.

  2. zev and sara peri

    great article

  3. Sammy Finkelman

    RP> These were words more suited to Franklin Roosevelt (who fought World War II; in fairness, he died before its end so the Nobel Committee was off the hook), Harry Truman (who ended WW II and should have won),

    In 1945, they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Cordell Hull, United States Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944. m

    This is his acceptance speech, delivered in absentia: (for reasons of poor health)


    The United States ambassador to Norway delivered this rather short speech, at the start of which he decsribed him as Father of the UNO, (United Nations Organization)
    I think he got it for his role in establishing or setting up the conference that established, the United Nations. They just about had to give it to him.

    The Nobel Committee actually preferred giving the Peace Prize to Secretaries of States , or Foreign Ministers, rather than Presidents or Prime Ministers. President Truman did not get Nobel Peace Prize but former Secretary of State George C. Marshall (1947-49 – also Secretary of Defense 1950-1951. He also ran the army during World War II – and was the person who picked and promoted Eisenhower.)

    I guess the thinking was a President does everything but a Secretary of State is the highest official whose sole responsibilities concern war and peace – and also is the person who does the actual work.

    As you can also see, at least for a time they waited until the person had retired, so he couldn’t do anything later to undermine the picture they had of him and the actions they intended to promote. They later got a bit more contemporaneous (with Dag Hammerskjold, U.N. Secretary General in 1961 and then started even giving it occasionally to heads of state – and also whenever some big peace agreement was negotiated. They mostly avoided public officials though.

    RP> Winston Churchill (who obviously should have won),

    Winston Churchiill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature instead,mostly for writing a history of the Second World War. That was in 1953.

    They said: “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

    But mostly really he defended fighting against those who would obliterate them, or more eexactly encouraged people to feel they would win and to just take the suffering.

    RP> Ronald Reagan (whose policies precipitated the end of the Cold War,

    Nobody actually thought the end was near at the end of his term on January 20, 1989,

    RP> and certainly should have won

    They gave it to Gorbachev instead, in 1990 (I suppose for not invading Eastern Europe and reinstalling dictatorship – he actually precipitated the whole thing when he replaced Janos Kadar in Hungary not understanding what the new generation would do. One of the first things they did is they took down the Iron Curtain. Later Gorbachev was actually responsible for replacing the old Communist goovernment in Czechoslovakia and I think Bulgaria as well, although they didn’t really know it)