Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Is Obama creating a wilderness and calling it peace?

The historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus is credited with the quotation, “They make a wilderness, and call it peace”. Assuming that I’m not taking it out of context or using it incorrectly, that quotation often comes to mind when I think of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

I really like Obama. I don’t think he has spent enough time in office for us to fairly define his domestic or foreign policy. I think he is better at his job than his predecessor, and by the end of his tenure, things will be better than at the beginning. That said, a brief look into his recent speech to the United Nations will reveal my concerns.

On the surface of things, it is hard to fault the American president. The broad vision for international relations that he has set out is admirable. The world really would be a better place if everyone took what he said to heart and worked towards that vision. But delve a little deeper into his remarks, and problems emerge.

For instance, Obama said:

Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people, and — in the past — America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment, it only reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self evident — and the United States of America will never waiver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.

On the face of it, I agree. But then, if democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, what’s the story with Iraq? After the WMD argument fell through, I thought the new position was that America had invaded to get rid of a dictator and bring democracy? President Bush certainly pushed that view, and on several occasions Obama has echoed those sentiments. While we’re at it, wasn’t the justification for the continued sanctions against Cuba rooted in its undemocratic nature?

Not only has America been “selective in its promotion of democracy” in the past, it continues to be so at present. So why is the man most able to change that state of affairs speaking as though he is either unaware of them or is a powerless outsider, completely unrelated to the prevailing norms which contradict his stated ideals?

On top of that, I don’t see how anyone can say, “Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people” in one breath, and then, “There are basic principles that are universal,” in the next. Some principles might seem universal to a society, but how can you possibly determine that the same holds true for others? How can anyone assume that for those whose thinking stems from different cultural roots, the perceived universality of others holds true? How can you negate the right of the existence of thought that is opposed, perhaps even diametrically, to your own? On this matter, both Star Trek (The Next Generation, with Lean-Luc Picard) and Makau Mutua’s book, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique, are extremely instructive.

No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation … The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world …

I wish that were true, I really do. But what about America in Afghanistan? If bombing out the last guys in power, installing your own, and standing by him in an openly fraudulent vote a little while after having castigated Iran for their dubious poll isn’t dominating another nation, what is? If what is often referred to as the “international community” is the North, if the only part of the South that gets a real hearing are the richest nations, and if still there is an attempt to deny the existence of traditional divisions, then surely … Surely the North/South division is obvious?

To cap off my point, Obama also said:

The United Nations was built by men and women like Roosevelt from every corner of the world — from Africa and Asia; from Europe to the Americas. These architects of international cooperation had an idealism that was anything but naïve — it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war, and the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.

Sort of. The UN Charter’s preamble was written by Jan Smuts, a man who, while comparatively moderate in his views, was a segregationist who was opposed to black South Africans being given the right to vote. The UN itself was founded at a time when in America, the fear was that returning black military personnel would forget their place in the social order of things. This was a good decade before the height of the civil-rights era. The international cooperation of the time excluded the natives of colonies which were still the property of Europe. The architects of international cooperation were really more like the architects of a members-only social club. Were that not the case, the UN today might advance the desires of the majority of its members as opposed to those of its wealthiest.

In exorcising history so that it carries the desired lessons, Obama and his speechwriters convey a beautiful message that is as rooted in reality as your average urban legend. That is where I struggle with this American president. For all that I like and admire about him — and there is plenty of that — I cannot trust the words of someone with such a selective reading of both history and current affairs.

I don’t know what he is making, but what Obama calls peace could be anything at all.

  • brent

    The 1st lesson is that countries have interests not friend or foe and Obama is no different to every other current world leader and past US presidents. His one difference is the power of his oratory, he seems to be a talker not a doer, just beware of ‘the tyranny of the articulate’ they are much harder to understand than the doers.


  • Chuma

    The General McChrystal report as well as the testimony of Admiral Mullen (Chairman Of Joint Chief of Staff) before the relevant Senate Committee as the US considers increasing troop levels in Afghanistan points to a realisation that the ultimate thing that will lead to peace is legitimacy of government. As in the words of Ad. Mullen not even a million troops could guarantee peace. This line of thinking is not new even Gen. Patreaus made the same observation in Iraq. Peace comes from a government whose legitimacy is recognised by the citizens. This is the gist of what Obama is considering as he considers agreeing or disagreeing to an increase in troop levels. It is no new problem, Vietnam was the same.

    Smuts and Merriman saw themselves as enlightened individuals in their respective races (the Afrikaners and the English) which they were trying to bring together. It is quite telling that as “enlightened” men their minds could not escape the “other race question” of black and white. Looking at the circumstances and having an appreciation of the progression of human race the two flawed statesmen could only trust to “enlightenment” and time to solve the race question. I bet most of us still do.

    Some of us are guided by Victor Hugo’s words.
    “For our own part, we respect certain things belonging to the past and forgive all of it, provided it consents to stay dead. But it if tries to come alive we attack and seek to kill it.”

  • Kholekile Tshunungwa

    Great analysis !

    Obama’s straddling of the middle ground threatens to make him too much of someone who wants to be everything to everybody, whilst not committing himself to decisive action. Perhaps, he needs to project this all-inclusive approach to be able to co-opt everybody to come tackle problems of the world with him. Unfortunately, the lack of decisive action has not earned him the respect of his friends or detractors. Inadvertently, he may turn out to be even less effective in convincing everybody to play along.

    Now, perhaps it is unfair to expect Obama to be the “maker” of history here. It’s a different playing field than the one ushered by the neocons in 2001. China has ascended not-so-quietly whilst American significance has taken a knock both politically and economically, which forces Obama to run ideas by far too many other leaders with other agendas, than perhaps he would like.

    So, perhaps Obama may be doing the best he can with the hand he has been dealt with. We also shouldn’t forget that he’d rather be engaged at home where there are even more difficult struggles with the new Health Care policy, the crippled economy, unemployment and the others. He has a whole lot on his plate, so perhaps Europe, Asia and others need to move in and be effective partners with Obama in sorting out this “wilderness” and turn it into “peace”. Obviously, Obama can’t do it alone.

  • Lobengula

    “I don’t know what he is making, but what Obama calls peace could be anything at all.”

    Could it be because he is an empty suit…a very stylish suit, but an empty one. Please keep in mind he came out of the most corrupt county in the most corrupt state (Governor Blagojevich)in the U.S., using all of the dirty tactics of Cook County’s Mayor Daley.

    “In exorcising history so that it carries the desired lessons, Obama and his speechwriters convey a beautiful message that is as rooted in reality as your average urban legend.”

    This is closer to the truth.

  • Zolani

    Every leader who comes to power charts a vision for the country and then attempts to move the country towards – that is how history judges her legacy in the end. For this I find it difficult to understand that Obama’s vision be criticized on the basis of his predecessor’s. Mandela’s 1994 speech committing the country to equal education cannot be rebutted by recalling Verwoerd. Smuts did a good job by the League of Nations. To use his participation in that body against today’s UN is like using the return of a handful of black soldiers to explain the postwar US foreign policy. As blacks they did not matter that much. Even the famous Tuskeegee flying squad was made to matter by the History Channel. The fact that there is always a relationship between the local (cultural) and the universal and that such a relationship is not necessarily oppositional even though there are often difference between the two is well known to people who do what Bryan does.

  • MidaFo

    @brent makes a good point, but while it is pragmatic to presume so, it is nevertheless chauvinistic to assert ‘countries have interests not friend or foe’. First of all we never can really tell. Secondly the statement limits all relationship between countries to that of friend or foe, the relationships of war, thereby precluding the area of relationship that great statesmen inhabit, namely that of peace.

  • Kitty Kat

    There is a train of thought that suggests that OBAMA was never going to be anything different to GBush. That is in terms of policy and implementation.Even though his oratary skills are much more refined that the blunt Bush,the words is just simply hollow.If one takes time ton investigate USA’s African policy.There is a manic rush to take and secure all Africa’s resources under the guise of terrorism or muslim extremism.If you look at the eg of Sudan,Liberia, Nigeria,etc etc.You will find that underpinning all the conflict,military and otherwise is American economic interest. Now we Africans, should stop believing in this notions of Messiahs and especially when they hail from over the seas.We have been so duped into Americanism,we fail to see the dangers for our own continent. Obama got to office through the hidden hand of the economic elite, so in whose interest will he act? We forget that the American hitmen are very busy on this continent. We forget that conflicts and wars have been started as a smokescreen for illicit dealings. We forget the history of africa leaders who collude with businessmen. How can it be that in 2009 we still fail to see a wolf in sheeps clothing. Maybe its becos media has pulled the wool over everyones eye and fail to educate by employing poor journos to do a good job of disinformation.

  • rayjay

    As with most blacks, you’re in a quandary: you see a brutha in Obama, but he speaks like a honkey! He doesn’t blame all the evils of this world on (white) racism and is incredibly realistic about democracy. Most of the problems you quote are from his predecessors era. I’m optimistic, with his fresh look at things there are going to be a lot of changes. Getting out of Guantanamo Bay is just one of his projects which is already happening.
    To quote you: — I cannot trust the words of someone with such a selective reading of both history and current affairs..

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Thanks to everyone who has shared their views. I’ll do my best to respond to them.

    Brent – …just beware of ‘the tyranny of the articulate’ they are much harder to understand than the doers.
    I suppose that it. Especially since, in this case, the vision being articulated is so incredibly seductive. But I wouldn’t go as far as using the word ‘tyranny’ anywhere near Obama.

    Chuma – thanks for sharing that Victor Hugo quotation. I’ll definitely hold onto that.

    Kholekile – Thanks. I think what bugs me about Obama is that he deliberately stirs up the unrealistic expectations many of us have of him. By most standards, what he has done already is admirable. But it falls so far short of what he said he would do. So do you judge the man based on what others have done, or what he said he would do?

    Lobengula – I hope not. There are times I start to think that maybe he is just a suit (like striking a deal with big pharma before tackling the healthcare debate), but he has also done some substantive things (like order Guantanamo shut).

    Zolani – I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the point you’re making.

    Kitty – you have a point. When all is said and done, powerful economic interests have a huge say over the political process and no leader under that system can stray too far from the status quo.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Rayjay – It’s incredible how racially polarised South Africa is. Over 1000 words or so, I sketch out my concerns about Obama’s policy based on his Speech to the UN, without a single reference to race, and you reduce it all somehow to race. What I quoted were Obama’s own words – ideas he therefore endorses. To say that I’m attacking him for the policies of his predecessors is like saying that Marxist scholars are wrongly associated with the writings of a man who died a very long time ago. They are, but that is because they endorse his views.

    Life, rayjay, does not boil down to race.

  • rayjay

    Life does indeed not boil down to race, but some people can’t avoid mentioning it indirectly anyway, despite their protestations to the contrary. I refer to your obtuse reference to Jan Smuts as a segregationist who was opposed to giving blacks the right to vote. As if that summed up the life of that great man. Hence my reference to not trusting the words of someone like you with such a selective reading of history and current affairs.

  • Bryan Mukandi

    Rayjay, Smuts was in fact a segregationist. I didn’t suggest that his views on race summed up his whole life or even that they were uniformly bad. I pointed out the fact that he was generally ahead of the majority of his contemporaries on the issue. But at the end of the day, the underlying point remains: Smuts was a segregationist whose conception of the brotherhood of man excluded some from full manhood. It is that disconnect that I was emphasising.

    I can only conclude by saying I find it incredibly ironic that you accuse me of being unable to mention race indirectly, and of having a selective reading of history.

  • http://aol fergie

    @Bryan, you have to look at the US behavior from a historical point of view in the world. The US has never wanted to be a world power but, it was forced on her after world war two. What you see the US doing in various countries with these mini wars are what the US call preventing major wars. You seem to think that the world was built on right and the world was built on might. This is why the Roman empire lasted so long. Finally, what would happen if the US withdraws from the world stage? Africa is the weakest link in the chain would be at the mercy of the same countries that are condemning the US. There would be a rush by India and China to take over defenseless Africa. If Obama is creating a wilderness to stop a major war, then I say he is doing his job.