President Obama’s speech in Oslo was powerful, subtle, honest, and provocative—provocative in that it cries out for thoughtful citizen response, especially in the context of the cognitive dissonance which he sought to finesse: a leader at war receiving a peace prize.
Obama has called Reinhold Neibuhr, the great Christian realist, his favorite theologian. Neibuhr, facing the enormity of Hitler’s crimes, asserted that Christians must temper the pure way of the Gospel with a bitter but unavoidable acceptance of just wars.
But the question remains, in this nuclear world, is realism still what it was? The presence of nuclear weapons has changed our world so profoundly that a seismic paradigm shift has occurred under our feet. Meanwhile our minds, even minds as brilliant as Mr. Obama’s, are only beginning to catch up. As Einstein put it in the familiar but ultimately unheeded telegram to President Roosevelt in 1945: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
As untenable as Mutually Assured Destruction was, even that is woefully outdated.
Technological marvels like our 560 foot-long Ohio-class submarines, each with enough
firepower to cause a nuclear winter, can do nothing to stop a determined terrorist.
If nuclear weapons cannot win wars or prevent wars, the very possibility of them can cause wars, as we so painfully learned in Gulf War 2, ostensibly undertaken to rid Iraq of Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs. Wars for the U.S. in Korea or Vietnam, or for the Soviets and now almost certainly us in Afghanistan, have not yielded clear and splendid victories, but only ambiguity—and often further war. They bankrupt the players. In back of everything lurks the possibility that any small war could escalate into nuclear war: it could happen as the present tensions in Palestine or Afghanistan ripple outward, overlapping the enmities between Pakistan and India, or Iran and Israel.
Obama and the rest of us are caught in the Orwellian confusions of language that one might expect in the midst of a paradigm shift. Mr. Obama said in his escalation speech that we do not seek to occupy Afghanistan, while the central thrust of the speech was to do exactly that. He referred often in his Nobel speech to Martin Luther King, whose life was a testament to the fact that there is no way to peace through war.
If an ancient paradigm of war is dying, what is the shape of the emerging paradigm? Is it a utopian dream, or might it be a new form of realism? We are seeing as never before that we are all in this together. We need look no further than the conference on climate change in Copenhagen. The planet will not make it unless all nations sacrifice and change. What helps you helps me. What hurts you hurts me. Whether the issue is nuclear holocaust or ecological disaster, we must learn to resolve our conflicts non-violently, or die.
It is no secret that the Pentagon is studying how to fight wars based on resource scarcities or the effects of climate change. But in this emerging paradigm, it is grotesquely less expensive to switch from the deterrence that is now obsolete to war prevention by meeting global needs directly. John Robbins has pointed out that for the equivalent of the cost of the Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter, (200 billion as of 2001) we could solve many the world’s most pressing problems, including providing the entire world with adequate food, clean water, health care and reproductive services. That is the way beyond terrorism.
We Americans find it hard to face the reality that we are now a garrison empire, with more than 800 foreign military bases on the soil of more than 100 nations. We may mean well, as Mr. Obama clearly does, but we often end up doing heart surgery with a chain saw. Even empires and their sorrows are part of a dying paradigm, as the larger empire of the human family cries out in the anguish of unnecessary deprivation.
One cliché about Afghanistan is that there are no good options. Nonsense! Look at the work Greg Mortenson has done building schools in the Af-Pak region. He has done this for years without harm to himself , and, for the most part, to his schools—because his clients have come to trust his disinterested good will. A surge in dialogue with the Afghan people about what they want is a good option. A surge in jobs for Afghans is a good option. A surge in our soldiers will engender a bigger pushback from people who for millennia have been trying to get foreign occupiers out of their ravaged country.
Congratulations on your prize, Mr. Obama! Now, as Tom Hanks said to Matt Damon after rescuing him in Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this!”
Winslow Myers is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” published by Orbis Press, and serves on the board of Beyond War.
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