west point 2014 graduation
That foreign policy speech
Buried deep in the trenches of President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point yesterday sits this little gem, one pundits on the whole are sure to overlook but one I thought deserves our attention: America stands (the president proclaimed) “for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity for people everywhere.”
To be sure, this statement is American jingoism at its best, but it made me wonder: had this been President Obama’s opening shot, the first words to float elegantly out of his mouth, what direction would his speech have taken, and just what kind of foreign policy doctrine would have unfolded?
Starting with this gem, it seems to me that he would have actually had to explain more precisely just what he meant. Imagine with me, if you will, that he would have found apropos the words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
The audacity to believe.
Imagine with me further the president speaking from his audacity to believe that any foreign policy worth pursuing is one that starts from the bottom, that is, from the perspective of those who go without one meal a day, let alone three; of those for whom education is a luxury, and a decent education – a dream; of those whose spirits are run down by the greedy, the cynical, the uncaring, the bigoted, the hateful. And of those who face daily the ravages of war, of drone attacks that, with great “certainty,” could have only produced “civilian casualties.”
Such a foreign policy, I imagine, would speak to the terrorism of hunger – would frame it, in fact, as “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” It would proclaim the absolute capacity we and “our partners” have to eradicate poverty everywhere. And it would speak to that terrorism because it would pose these questions: what do those on the bottom need in order to live without violence, without hunger? What do they need in order to live full lives, free of domination, inequality, injustice? It would assume that the first order of business with any nation is to ask, are your people doing well? Do they have enough to eat? What can we do to help?
Such a policy would, without hesitation, name nonviolence as its guiding principle – not just peace, but nonviolence, an active, purposeful commitment to real peace at home and abroad. Which means that the policy would presuppose the necessity of disarming our own citizens, of removing assault weapons from our closets and sock drawers, of making sure that violence in Chicago or Santa Barbara would be a thing of the past.
Listen as President Obama re-orders what he referred to in his speech as “elements” of “American leadership.” Instead of offering to us as the “fourth and final element” our “willingness to act on human dignity,” he offers it instead as the first.
From there, of course, he would have to talk forthrightly about Guantanamo, that travesty of justice begun during the Bush II years and shamefully extended into the second term of Obama’s own presidency. “Our own government,” he’d have the audacity to say, “has demonstrated a stunning disrespect for human rights,” and the “force feeding that I have condoned and which I will end today” has fed “instability” as well as “the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” He would admit that it is no longer good enough for him to simply say [as he did in his speech] that “I will continue to push to close GTMO.”
But that’s not the speech or policy that we got from President Obama, whose audacity to hope has never quite translated into audacity. What we got instead is a foreign policy in which “opportunity for people everywhere” is just a passing thought, and “human dignity” is a bookend to a doctrine where “terrorism,” and not the unmet needs of people everywhere, figures as America’s number one threat.