“The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace…”

President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace today. As he acknowledged at the start of his address, the seeming contradiction of a wartime President receiving a distinction such as this was on the minds of many in the world.

His address was an eloquent rationalization for war. I don’t know any other way to say it. To many, undoubtedly, it made sense. To many more–most of those in the world who suffer under the effects of war–it would seem gross and incomprehensible for him to say what he did say.

While you can easily access the full-text of the speech at the White House, let me share with you the heart of his rationalization, and the critical center of his thinking I find so unsatisfactory:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naive — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. 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 nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

What we must begin to consider is that “peace” is not merely the absence of war. While my concerns as a scholar are far more focused on what this means for everyday people living life on this planet–the freedom to be free from starvation as well as other forms of cultural, spiritual, political, and physical violence–it is equally true for the realm of big government diplomacy.

No, a “nonviolent movement” would not have halted Hitler’s armies in 1939. But a truly peaceful form of national and international diplomacy would have never allowed such a condition to materialize in the first place. If we live in a world where inequalities and inequities are not only allowed to exist but are indifferently and passively fostered and condoned, then we live in a world that will continue to see the worst in our species rise up.

Peace is not simple. Peace is not singular. But make no mistake about it: peace is both possible, realistic, and urgently needed.

Veterans Day

I am the son of a veteran. I am the nephew of a veteran. I am the friend of veterans.  I am the friend and relative of future veterans.

Veterans Day–formerly Armistice Day, marking the end of the “Great War” (World War I)–is a day of both gratitude and moral urgency for me.  I know enough in my own life to not stereotype the motivations and nature of participation of the men and women who serve in combat roles in the US military.  My pacifist and anti-nationalist politics don’t preclude me for having a deep respect for people who bring politicians’ decisions into reality, however willingly or not they do so. Knowing both a little bit about the results of those actions, that respect comes with a certain sense of sadness, too. Even if one survives, there are few who participate in war who are spared by it.

And that frames the moral urgency of a day like this.  Veterans Day is a day to focus some thought and attention on assuring the future demise of the holiday.  We live in a world where the prospect of war seems immutable until we discover the depth of the prospect of peace.  Then we should be compelled to act to end this human folly.

I long for a day when there are no more veterans to mark a day like this; when people never have to make the choice whether or not to “defend their country”; when families never have to suffer the pain of separation and loss; and when the involvement of the US in millions of human lives around the world is not dominated by its ability to bring death and suffering.

Barack Obama is about to make a decision on the war in Afghanistan. At this point, all that is unknown is how many more troops he will send.  It is the wrong decision. You might feel like you don’t have the expertise to say that; like the military leadership who is asking for more troops represent the select few who can really judge. You would be wrong if you thought that.  That you do is perhaps understandable, but it is also part of the problem.  When we abdicate our responsibility to think and feel like humanists we contribute to the obliteration of any humanist possibility.  The sad truth is that there are those who think that any military situation can be “won” militarily.  History is proof that this is not the case. The future need not continue to confirm this further.

When you voted for Obama your work had only begun

One year ago today, on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

At the time, and like many others, I celebrated this milestone in US history:

Today I think of all the millions of lives who fought for a fraction of what has just occurred. Today I think of all the lives that were lost in the name of racial hatred and in the struggle for racial justice. Today I think of all their deferred hopes and dreams, the progress they knew could happen but they could not live to enjoy. Today I am amazed at the victory of their words, of their ideas, of their blood.

One year later, the blissful exuberance of the election has begun to temper. Many “progressives” see this as a partial failure of the Obama administration, if not the man himself. I couldn’t disagree more. If the “Obama era” has not measured up to your visions of a healthier government, a more humane nation, and a more just world, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on you, on me, on us.

A day before Obama was elected, I wrote the following:

In the upcoming months, progressive people of conscience (“non-white” and “white” alike) will have to begin the difficult work of checking their own assumptions. Many have this belief that because a black man will be in the White House that everything will magically become better. Many expect Barack Obama to take a leadership role in transforming the political system in meaningful ways. But why? Why should this special burden be placed on Barack Obama when it has not been evenly placed upon all politicians? Of course, he does have a special obligation regarding race, but that is the same responsibility we all share–white, black, or otherwise.

One year ago today was an important day. It was historically significant. It was also emotionally uplifting. But it wasn’t the end of something. It was just the beginning. The act of voting for “change” doesn’t bring it; if it is successful, it merely presents us with yet another opportunity to do what is right, what is best, what is just.

So today is the one year anniversary of a new opportunity. Whether that opportunity will translate into a new reality isn’t up to President Barack Obama. It is up to us. As James Baldwin said “No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

Now, back to work.


Obama’s Nobel Win is not Global Affirmative Action

When I first heard Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. And then terror.

While I have only been a lukewarm supporter of the President’s initial period in office–less than impressed with his commitment to corporate welfare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoidance of issues confronting immigrant and LGBT equality–I am an avid ally of him as a fellow person of color.

I can appreciate the difficulty of a fairly progressive-minded, person of color has when they occupy the most powerful political seat in this nation.  We are a nation that has refused in bold and multiple ways to confront its white supremacist past, and the powerfully lingering ways that past structures our present.  The social and cultural baggage of more than two centuries of this great failure is lifted and carried by all those who choose to bear its load, and all people of color whether or not they so choose.  Barack Obama, in many ways, carries a share beyond measure.

So when I heard he had won, the second thing that came to my mind was that this would be used by his opponents.  When I opened up my news app to read about the award, one of the first voices I read was Republican chairman Michael Steele’s who asked “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” Most early coverage grappled with this question, baffled by the President’s distinction coming at a time when he officiates over two wars and struggles on the domestic front to secure his and his party’s agenda.  What I knew would be coming were even more racially-infused analyses, ones putting his award into question as they imply he was nothing more than a recipient of global affirmative action.

While I, too, was surprised that Obama won the award, it is not an unjustified recognition.

The U.S. has a difficult time thinking beyond its borders, and making sense of this award is nearly all about that.  The Nobel Committee bestowed this distinction not for his domestic struggles but for his leadership on the global stage.  While we are stuck in the health care and immigration debates–both of which DO relate to hemispheric peace–our President has also been acting for peace in the global arena.  Whether in his support of a nuclear free world, or for meaningful efforts to check global warming, Obama has been active in progressive ways beyond our borders.

Of course, he has already begun accumulating a list of omissions on that same stage, issues and conflicts to which he and his administration have been all too silent, or vocal in less than productive ways.  But the award is not a litmus test of issues as much as it is a process of possibility.

And here is where race may be involved.  There is a powerful element to his international distinction that comes with his race.  It is not just because he is black, but this distinction does come from the ways he is connected to his blackness.  That might seem confusing, but it’s really not.  Barack Obama has made himself a national and international voice for those who do not have one.  In his consistent rhetoric (and in measured ways beyond) he has shown that the issues confronting the poor and the marginalized are significant and worthy of deliberation at the highest of political levels.  Perhaps more important is the sense of moral imperative he gives to these issues.  This is, I think, a significant component to the way he is regarded on the world stage.  As a black man who advocates for the issues confronting the “global South”–the masses of poor and hungry being victimized by war and other government machinations–who are both nonwhite and the majority of this globe, Obama has become a force of good and, potentially, much more good for the world.

Obama is, in global terms, an authentic voice for the world’s oppressed.  Some of this comes from nothing other than being who he is.  But all of it comes from his unwillingness to forget and depart from who he is.

The most significant thing he has done this year that has received less than the attention it deserved was his trip to the African continent.  That this was under the radar on the US domestic scene has probably as much to do with the Obama White House than anything else.  Timed to be part of a weekend, when press coverage is low, his administration might have feared the radical white backlash that would rather predictably come with a the nation’s first black President traveling to Africa.  The escalation of the “birthers” and the mainstreaming of their message didn’t help.

But it was a powerful weekend.  I still don’t think we, as a nation, have a firm grasp of the awesomely tragic ways European imperialism and slavery transformed the world.  I am quite certain we don’t appreciate the ways most of the global South continues to feel their affects.  While we think of these as things that have passed, they have no such luxury.  For those reasons, I am also quite certain few of us could appreciate the significance of a nonwhite person, in his capacity as the de facto head of the First World, symbolically “returning” to the Third World.  I don’t think we can fully appreciate the inherent possibility for change that brings with it.

Today, I think the Nobel selection committee did.

Chavez enrolls Obama in Latin America 101

The Presidents of Venezuela and the United States have “informally” crossed paths twice at this weekends’ Summit of the Americas. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama first exchanged words yesterday, and then, today, Chavez gave Obama a book as a gift.

CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

The book he gave him is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. (Here’s a recent article on Galeano where he discusses some of his ideas on Latin America and his new book, Espejos.)  The text is a familiar one to students of Latin American history, serving as it does as something of an introduction to European and U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.

That’s right; Chavez just suggested Obama “go to school” on the imperial history of his nation.

I suspect the big O already knows a bit about that past (and, regrettably, present), but I still hope he takes the time to read Galeano.  It’s one of those life changing books, challenging as it does many of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. involvement in the hemisphere.

But Chavez didn’t stop there.  In comments he delivered on Saturday, Chavez said the U.S. “must breakaway from the concept of viewing us as its backyard.”  (See the full story here.)  The notion of “proximity” has always been a prcursor to U.S. empire, as argued (with copious amounts of proof) by scholars like Lars Schoultz and Louis Pérez Jr. When he said that, Chavez wasn’t speaking to Latin America, the only part of the hemisphere that seems to be reporting on his remarks.  He was intentionally trying to “teach” the U.S. about the problems of its own “savior” tendencies.

Chavez is a well-read man, familiar with much of the recent work in Latin American history produced by English-language writers.  Some years ago, he made a public appearance holding Empire’s Workshop, by historian Greg Grandin (a stellar book, btw).  Our president has the chance to show Latin Americans he is more than a machine spouting off the rhetoric of neoliberalism, like our previous 43 guys in office.  A good start might be by showing them he understands what it is they know and why they know it.

But, then again, it’s politics.


They want his “policies” to fail

Courtesy of CNN’s Political Ticker, Fred Thompson–politician turned actor turned failed politician–has added his grizzled voice to the now well-organized choir of Republicans who want Obama’s “policies” to fail (not him, as Jabba the Limbaugh chortled earlier this year).

I have three points related to this view held by Thompson, Jindal, and all the others.

1. Socialism.  While Freddie avoided the “s” word in his proclamation, others have been making liberal use of it.  I am ALL in favor of a little socialism in this nation, especially as we are bearing witness to an economic phenomenon that is anything but an aberration of capitalism.  But, raising the tax three percent on gazillionaires and investing in children and the future of the economy is not socialism.  If you think it is–I mean really think it is–then you don’t read enough.

2. “The Road.” These Republican voices have been rationalizing their perspective by saying they don’t want to head down a road of a huge debt, high inflation, and a host of other things, that nobody wants.  If you really think Obama wants those things, then you don’t read enough.  (I will add Bill Moyers and others make a very historically-sound argument why many Conservatives do want those.)  We know why they say this: because if these policies just worked, then Republicans would be saying they’d rather be wrong and not know it than know it.  As long as they aren’t proven wrong, they can keep mobilizing people on their faulty ideas.

3. Old white men.  I’m tired of caring about what old white guys want and don’t want.  We’ve done that for two centuries already and it hasn’t been all that great for the rest of us. (And no, Jindal is not an exception.)

Obama Talks Some Trash

All presidents have to hear the public chide them, often belittle them.  But not like this!

From the Washington Post comes this article about Obama’s recent visit to see the Washington Wizards play his hometown Chicago Bulls.  The Prez sat next to Miles Rawls–avid Wizard’s fan and all-around trash-talker–and managed to dish it out as well as he got.

“We were up by 15,” Rawls remembered in a phone conversation this afternoon. “I told [Obama], ‘You can tell them to warm up the limo, Sir, because this is a wrap here.’ “

Obama continues covert airstrikes

In what seems to be his first approved act of war (though this does not meet the legal definition of it), Obama approved the continuation of the US covert airstrikes in Pakistan.  Yesterday, AP reports some 22 “militants were killed by what are likely US missiles launched by remote drones.

Pakistan: Toll from US missile strikes reaches 22

By ASIF SHAHZAD – 2 hours ago

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The death toll from two suspected U.S. missile attacks on al-Qaida bases in northwest Pakistan has risen to 22, officials and residents said Saturday. Eight suspected foreign militants were among the dead.

A senior security official said Pakistani authorities were trying to determine the seniority of an Egyptian al-Qaida militant believed to have been killed.

Friday’s attacks were the first since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and suggest that he will allow U.S. forces to continue targeting al-Qaida and Taliban operatives inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt.

Pakistani leaders complain that the stepped-up missile strikes — more than 30 since August — violate the country’s sovereignty and undermine the government’s own efforts to tackle rising Islamist violence at home.

However, U.S. officials have defended the tactic and say missiles fired from remotely piloted aircraft have killed a string of militant leaders behind attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.

Three intelligence officials told The Associated Press that funerals were held Saturday for nine Pakistanis killed Friday in Zharki, a village in the North Waziristan region.

The officials, citing reports from field agents and residents, said Taliban fighters had earlier removed the bodies of five suspected foreign militants who also died in the first missile strike Friday. Initial reports put the death toll from that attack at 10.

A senior security official in the capital, Islamabad, identified one of the slain men as a suspected al-Qaida operative called Mustafa al-Misri. He said it was unclear if the man was a significant figure.

The second strike hit a house in the South Waziristan region. Residents and security officials say eight people died in the village of Gangi Khel.

Resident Allah Noor Wazir said he attended funerals for the owner of the targeted house, Din Faraz, his three sons and a guest.

“I also heard that three bodies had been taken away by Taliban. They say they belong to foreigners,” Wazir told the AP by telephone.

All of the security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The United States does not acknowledges firing the missiles, which are believed to be mostly fired from drones operated by the CIA and launched from neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s government has little control over the border region, which is considered a likely hiding place for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

Obama is making the war in Afghanistan and the intertwined al-Qaida fight in Pakistan an immediate foreign policy priority. He has not commented on the missile strike policy, but struck a hawkish tone during his election campaign.

Also Saturday, Pakistan’s government welcomed Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

A Foreign Ministry statement Saturday said Obama’s decision was a step toward “upholding the primacy of the rule of law” and would add a “much-needed moral dimension in dealing with terrorism.”

Pakistan helped the United States round up hundreds of militants in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including several al-Qaida leaders still incarcerated at Guantanamo.