Obama in Oslo: Between King and Machiavelli
By Dr. Nassir Ghaemi
Created Dec 21 2009
Middle East for a psychiatric conference in Qatar that I began to understand the dilemma. Sometimes you have to leave America to understand it.
After the recent election, a popular t-shirt showed the faces of Obama and Martin Luther King, with the legend: The Dream Achieved. Recently, in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Obama had to directly address how his politics relate to those of his cultural predecessor as an African-American leader. How could he justify his role as leader of wars with his prize, and his status as King's successor? It was not until I recently went to the
I came across an editorial in the English language Arab News daily, written by Uri Avnery, an Israeli intellectual who has been a long-time advocate for peaceful compromise with the Palestinians. He wrote about Obama's recent Nobel address. In the US, it received scant news attention, just brief clips about how he defended the need, as head of state, for continued military activity in places like Afghanistan. Here is Avnery's take:"My first impression was that it was almost impertinent: To come to a peace ceremony and there to justify war. But when I read it for the second and then a third time, I found some undeniable truths. I, too, believe that there are limits to nonviolence. No nonviolence would have stopped Hitler. The trouble is that this insight serves often as a pretext for aggression. Everyone who starts a stupid war pretends that there is no alternative." Avnery has this view of Iraq and Afghanistan, and faults Obama for pretending there is no alternative in those places.
He especially worries how this attitude will play out in Israel:"In all the long Oslo speech, Obama devoted 16 whole words to us: ‘We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden.' Well, first of all, it is not a conflict between Arabs and Jews. It is between Palestinians and Israelis. That is an important difference....If the conflict is indeed hardening, the US, and Obama personally must carry much of the blame." He notes how Obama has backed off any pressure on Israel, such as in its settlements policies, whereas even George Bush asked for more restrictions, which the Israelis now ignore without any reaction from Obama: "In Jerusalem the settlement activity is in full swing. Palestinian families thrown out of their homes to the jubilant cries of the settlers, and the few Israeli protesters against the injustice are sent to hospitals and prisons. The settler groups engaged in these activities receive donations from the US that are tax-deductible - thus Obama is indirectly paying for the very acts he condemns. And Obama? Obama."
Reading Avnery crystallized my own discomfort with Obama's Nobel speech. The president referred to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and commented that he was aware that they were totally committed to nonviolence, but that he, Obama, as head of state, had to accept the limits of nonviolence and the need for military action at times. Machiavelli could not have said it better, and I don't mean this as a criticism: Machiavelli was a genius and simply correct in his view that in politics one has to engage in harshness, even violence, at times, as long as it is for the benefit of the state, i.e., in our times, the people. Thus could Obama justify his role as leader of wars while accepting a peace prize; thus he did.
But Machiavelli does not exactly conflict with Gandhi and King, and his ideas do not necessarily negate Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence. Let me explain: Machiavelli said that human beings are inherently aggressive, violent, and deceitful; hence the need, at times and judiciously, to deceive, threaten, and even harm them in the interests of the state. King in particular, and to some extent Gandhi, agreed with Machiavelli: human beings are inherently aggressive, violent, and duplicitious; but the response of being aggressive, violent, and duplicitious is a bad solution, not just because it is morally wrong - which it is - but because it is pragmatically harmful: it produces more violence and aggression, and history becomes what Gibbon once famously described, the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. We engage in nonviolence, King explained, not despite the fact that humans are violent, but because they are so.
Machiavelli might have responded that this was fine for personal human relations but not for politics, as Jesus Christ taught when he said that to Caesar belonged what was Caesar's. King and Gandhi applied Christ's theory to political life, though, and showed that it worked. And King applied it not only to domestic injustice but also to foreign policy, as his adamant opposition to the Viet Nam war demonstrated.
Nonviolence does not mean pacifism, as both Gandhi and King repeatedly asserted. It is not passive acquiescence with injustice, to use King's words; it is nonviolent, rather than violent, resistance to injustice. It requires more courage and creativity than violence, but it is no less resistant. Economic sanctions, for instance, are as much a form of nonviolent resistance as marching from Selma to Montgomery.
Now there are limits, it is true. Gandhi tried to teach a nonviolent response to Hitler, for instance, writing letters to him and advising the British and Poles to resist peacefully, and he has been pilloried for years for his apparent naivete. But if we read the first lines of the history of the Second World War written by his enemy, Winston Churchill describes in exasperation how that war was an unnecessary war, one which could have been well avoided with a more realistic British foreign policy towards Hitler in the 1930s. Thus even Hitler is not a counterexample: if we engage in consistent and persistent nonviolent politics, we will never reach those extreme limit situations where wars will be necessary.
One might say that Obama is cleaning up the mess of others in Iraq and Afghanistan; that may be, but Avnery's point is right: What about Israel? Obama is not engaging an active policy of nonviolent resistance to those activities that are creating more and more conflict, and eventually may lead to violent outcomes. If he does not act nonviolently now, he will have to act violently in the future. And then, at that point, one expects that we will say that there is no alternative.
I don't suppose that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize should entail a need to abjure war forever; but perhaps if our leaders would more consciously follow the principles of Gandhi and King, we might one day create a world where we can avoid such no-alternative-to-war dead ends. Then I'll put my t-shirt on.