It’s now been a week since Obama’s inauguration, more than enough time for the pundits to express their opinions about Obama’s inauguration speech. Commentary has been received from the usual suspects:
- Clive Crook (Financial Times)
- Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal)
- Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post)
- Paul Krugman (New York Times)
- A panel of presidential speechwriters (New York Times)
Like many of the critics, I thought Obama’s speech was good, but not great. It was neither soaringly inspiring nor overly alarmist. It struck a middle tone of cautious optimism for the future while warning of the amount of work and sacrifice that will be required. It seemed calculated to please liberals and conservatives alike. It did so by using careful phrasing that allowed the critics to project their own interpretations onto the speech. Let me do the same.
The phrase that was surely crafted to please conservative listeners was “And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents … You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” Of course: Obama will be tough on terrorism! In this day and age, who would not be tough on terrorism? Who would hesitate to proclaim being tough on terrorism, if such hesitation could be interpreted as being soft on terrorism?
What does it mean to be tough on terrorism? Of course, it means that we will bomb Iran! That’s the only way to be tough on terror, right? There’s a group of people who think that the only way to defeat our enemies is to bomb them (or blow them up, or shoot them, or whatever). Probably a bunch of Republicans do. Maybe McCain does (though his “Bomb Iran” line was possibly a joke). Certainly the questioner from the audience described in the above-linked article believes in bombing. The Iranians are evil, so we have to drop bombs on them. End of story.
OK, so we drop some bombs on Iran. Now what? Now that we’ve done so, are they going to say “Sorry about that, we didn’t mean it, let’s be friends”? Of course not. They’ll be bigger enemies, and a bunch of people sympathetic to Iran will also become our enemies. Oh great, more enemies. Should we bomb them too?
Trust me, this doesn’t stop. Remember when Yugoslavia broke up after the fall of communism? Some of the tribal warfare that broke out had roots going back 800 years. Eight. Hundred. Years. So if you want to bomb Iran and create some enemies who will stick around for the next few centuries, be my guest.
So, how do we achieve victory if not through guns and bombs? A clue about how Obama’s policies will take us forward can be found just a few sentences earlier in his speech:
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.
They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
This is, I think, amazing speechwriting. It advocates of “soft power” which should please the liberals, while pleasing the conservatives by tying it to Reagan’s defeat of communism and the Greatest Generation’s victory in WWII. Simply astounding.
Given this context, what is victory? Here’s my definition:
You have achieved victory when you have convinced your adversary to change his behavior in your favor.
Not easy or straightforward. But more likely to secure peace than bombing the other guy.