FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly: A speech of contradictions

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech has resulted in praise from unusual quarters -- some conservative. They are correct to point out that parts of the speech, primarily the first half, are a surprisingly robust defense of the need for military intervention, both to protect American security and when genocide or humanitarian grounds require action.  It is worth noting, however, that this defense is narrowly written to exclude the Iraq War and other such cases unless the United Nations or some other international body sanctions action. Despite these flaws, it would have been a decent speech if he stopped there. He instead went on to add Oslo as the latest stop on his global apology tour, referring to supposed U.S. torture, Guantanamo Bay, and stating, "I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions," leading to what appeared to be one of only two applause lines that managed to stir the stoic Norwegian crowd.

During the second half of the speech, he returned to what has now become a familiar topic of his orations -- his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons. When it awarded him the prize in October, the Nobel Committee even cited his support for a world free of nuclear weapons as one of the reasons for the award.

His discussion of this issue revealed how little he has accomplished in this area. He referred to upholding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as "the centerpiece of my foreign policy" and to his efforts to reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. On the first, he has done nothing to strengthen the regime and instead has attempted to engage the treaty's most serial violator, Iran. A team of U.S. negotiators just departed Pyongyang in what appears to have been another failed effort to get North Korea to return to talks which eventually might lead to a return to the treaty, but don't expect progress on this front anytime soon.  Perhaps recognizing this, he made it clear that the status quo is unacceptable:

...for if we want lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.

This all sounds great, but the President said essentially the same thing in April during his nonproliferation speech in Prague. Eight months after he said "words must mean something," it has become clearer than ever that the international community's words don't mean much of anything. On reducing the U.S. and Russian stockpiles, a key U.S.-Russian arms control agreement expired a week ago, and despite his supposed "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia, it is unclear when a treaty will be finalized and whether it will ever be ratified by the Senate.

On democracy and human rights, some on the left who have been critical of his administration's aversion to speaking out on these issues may take solace in the fact that he spoke openly of the need to uphold human rights and of America's interest in seeing democracy spread. Even here, however, his rhetoric was mixed.  He said that America would be a "voice for those aspirations that are universal" but that we also must deal with repressive regimes even though that "lacks the satisfying purity of indignation." This glosses over the fact that his administration has appeared unable to both engage and speak out about human rights at the same time -- as President Reagan did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

So in sum, today's speech brought us some soaring rhetoric from a President who has spoken timidly about issues of war and peace but, all in all, it portends more of the same. Just as the President clouded his very positive announcement last week at West Point with unfortunate rhetoric about withdrawal, it is likely his grand defense of intervention in Oslo obscures the unfortunate reality that the President is more comfortable speaking about such action than taking it.

Originally published on Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government" blog.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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