Can Obama Speak Strongly for Peace?

From the Archive: During the Cold War, two presidents delivered honest warnings to Americans, Eisenhower on the “military-industrial complex” and Kennedy on how “we all inhabit this small planet.” Now Ukraine presents a challenge to President Obama to speak out for peace, as Robert Parry wrote in March.

By Robert Parry (Published March 15, 2014)

With the neocons again ascendant – and with the U.S. news media again failing to describe a foreign crisis honestly – Barack Obama faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his presidency, a moment when he needs to find the courage to correct a false narrative that his own administration has spun regarding Ukraine – and to explain why it’s crucial to cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the cause of world peace.

In other words, if Obama is to salvage his historical legacy, he must find within himself the strength and eloquence that President John F. Kennedy displayed in possibly his greatest oration, his June 10, 1963 address at American University in Washington, D.C. In that speech, Kennedy outlined the need to collaborate with Soviet leaders to avert dangerous confrontations, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Kennedy also declared that it was wrong for America to seek world domination, and he asserted that U.S. foreign policy must be guided by a respect for the understandable interests of adversaries as well as allies. Kennedy said:

“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”

Kennedy recognized that his appeal for this serious pursuit of peace would be dismissed by the cynics and the warmongers as unrealistic and even dangerous. The Cold War was near its peak when Kennedy spoke. But he was determined to change the frame of the foreign policy debate, away from the endless bravado of militarism:

“I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. …

“Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

And then, in arguably the most important words that he ever spoke, Kennedy said, “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Kennedy followed up his AU speech with practical efforts to work with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to rein in dangers from nuclear weapons and to discuss other ways of reducing international tensions, initiatives that Khrushchev welcomed although many of the hopeful prospects were cut short by Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

Eisenhower’s Warning

Kennedy’s AU oration was, in many ways, a follow-up to what turned out to be President Dwight Eisenhower’s most famous speech, his farewell address of Jan. 17, 1961. That’s when Eisenhower ominously warned that “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Arguably no modern speeches by American presidents were as important as those two. Without the phony trumpets that often herald what are supposed to be “important” presidential addresses, Eisenhower’s stark warning and Kennedy’s humanistic appeal defined the challenges that Americans have faced in the more than half century since then.

Those two speeches, especially Eisenhower’s phrase “military-industrial complex” and Kennedy’s “we all inhabit this small planet,” resonate to the present because they were rare moments when presidents spoke truthfully to the American people.

Nearly all later “famous” remarks by presidents were either phony self-aggrandizement (Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall” – when the wall wasn’t torn down until George H.W. Bush was president and wasn’t torn down by Mikhail Gorbachev anyway but by the German people). Or they are unintentionally self-revealing (Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” or Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”)

Obama has yet to leave behind any memorable quote, despite his undeniable eloquence. There are his slogans, like “hope and change” and some thoughtful speeches about race and income inequality, but nothing of the substance and the magnitude of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” and Kennedy’s “we all inhabit this small planet.”

But now may be the time for Obama to deliver a speech that grapples with the central foreign policy question facing the United States, essentially whether America will continue seeking to be an Empire or return to being a Republic. Obama also needs to confront the crisis in the political/media worlds where propaganda holds sway and the public is misled.

If Obama doesn’t meet this challenge head on – and explain to the American people why he has sought (mostly behind the scenes) to work with Russian President Putin to reduce tensions over Syria and Iran – he can expect that the final years of his presidency will be overwhelmed by neocon demands that he start up a new Cold War.

Taunting Obama as Weak

On the op-ed page of Saturday’s New York Times, Sen. John McCain gave Obama a taste of what that will be like. The newspaper’s title of the op-ed was “Obama Made America Look Weak” with a subhead saying, “Crimea is our chance to restore our country’s credibility.”

McCain, the neocon/hawkish Republican who lost to Obama in 2008, wrote: “Crimea has exposed the disturbing lack of realism that has characterized our foreign policy under President Obama. It is this worldview, or lack of one, that must change. For five years, Americans have been told that ‘the tide of war is receding,’ that we can pull back from the world at little cost to our interests and values. This has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative. …

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, [Obama’s] military decisions have appeared driven more by a desire to withdraw than to succeed. Defense budgets have been slashed based on hope, not strategy. Iran and China have bullied America’s allies at no discernible cost.”

McCain also restated the old narrative blaming the Syrian government for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus, even though that case has largely collapsed. McCain wrote: “Perhaps worst of all, Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama’s ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons in Syria, and nothing happened to him.”

The New York Times, which only grudgingly acknowledged its own erroneous reporting on the Syria CW incident, made no effort on Saturday to insist that McCain’s accusations were truthful, fitting with how major U.S. news organizations have performed as propaganda vehicles rather than serious journalistic entities in recent decades. [For more on the Syrian dispute, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mistaken Guns of Last August.”]

From McCain’s op-ed and other neocon writings, it’s also clear that the new goal is to go beyond Ukraine and use it as a lever to destabilize and topple Putin himself. McCain wrote: “Eventually, Russians will come for Mr. Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor F. Yanukovych. We must prepare for that day now.”

This plan for overthrowing Putin was expressed, too, by neocon Carl Gershman, the longtime president of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, a more than $100 million-a-year slush fund that was founded in 1983 to provide financial support for groups organizing to destabilize governments that Official Washington considered troublesome.

In a Washington Post op-ed last September, Gershman wrote that “Ukraine is the biggest prize,” but added that once Ukraine was pried loose from a close association with Russia, the next target would be Putin, who “may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

If President Obama doesn’t actually believe that the United States should undertake the willful destabilization of nuclear-armed Russia, he might want to tell the American people before these matters get out of hand. He also should describe more honestly the events now overtaking Ukraine.

But it has been Obama’s custom to allow his administration’s foreign policy to be set by powerful “rivals” who often have profoundly different notions about what needs to be done in the world. Obama then tries to finesse their arguments, more like the moderator of an academic debate than President.

The best documented case of this pattern was how Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus maneuvered Obama into what turned out to be a pointless “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Robert Gates Double-Crosses Obama.”]

Kerry’s Double-Dealing

But Obama has been undercut, too, by his current Secretary of State John Kerry, who has behaved more like President John McCain’s top diplomat than President Obama’s. To the surprise of many Democratic friends, Kerry has chosen to take highly belligerent – and factually dubious – positions on Iran, Syria and now Ukraine.

For instance, on Aug. 30, 2013, Kerry delivered what sounded like a declaration of war against Syria over what Kerry falsely presented as clear-cut evidence that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad had launched a major chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs. But Kerry never presented any actual evidence to support his charges, and subsequent investigations, including a scientific assessment on the limited range of the one Sarin-laden missile, undercut Kerry’s claims.

After Kerry’s bombastic speech, President Putin helped President Obama find a face-saving way out of the crisis by getting Assad to agree to eliminate his entire chemical weapons arsenal (though Assad continued denying any role in the attack). Last fall, Putin also assisted Obama in getting Iran to sign an agreement on limiting its nuclear program, though Kerry again nearly scuttled the deal.

As Obama quietly tried to build on his collaboration with Putin, Kerry’s State Department undercut the relationship once more when neocon holdover Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland stoked the crisis in Ukraine on Russia’s border.

Last December, Nuland, the wife of prominent neocon Robert Kagan, told a group of Ukrainian business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion to promote the country’s “European aspirations.” She also personally encouraged anti-government protesters in Kiev by passing out cookies and discussed in an intercepted phone call who should serve in the new regime once President Yanukovych was gone.

Last month, when snipers opened fire and the violence killed both protesters and police, Kerry’s State Department was quick to point the finger of blame at the democratically elected President Yanukovych, although more recent evidence, including an intercepted call involving the Estonian foreign minister, suggests that elements of the opposition may have shot both protesters and police as a provocation.

Nevertheless, the State Department’s rush to judgment blaming Yanukovych and the gullible acceptance of this narrative by the mainstream U.S. news media created a storyline of “white-hat” protesters vs. a “black-hat” government, ignoring the many “brown shirts” of neo-Nazi militias who had moved to the front of the Kiev uprising.

As the crisis worsened, Putin, who was focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, appears to have favored some compromise with the protesters, urging Yanukovych to sign an agreement with the opposition and European nations on Feb. 21 accepting a cutback in his powers and moving up elections that would have removed him from office constitutionally.

But Putin reportedly warned Yanukovych about another element of the deal in which Ukrainian police pulled back. That created an opening for the neo-Nazi militias to seize government buildings by force and to force Yanukovych to flee for his life. Under the watchful eye of these modern-day storm troopers – and with pro-Yanukovych officials facing physical threats – a rump parliament voted in lock step to go outside the constitution and remove Yanukovych from office. [For a thorough account of the uprising, see “The Ukrainian Pendulum” by Israeli journalist Israel Shamir.]

A Murky Reality

Despite the many violations of democratic and constitutional procedures, Kerry’s State Department immediately recognized the coup government as “legitimate,” as did the European Union. In reality, Ukraine had experienced a putsch which ousted the duly elected president whose political support had come from the east and south, whereas the Kiev protesters represented a minority of Ukraine’s voters in the west.

Faced with a violent coup on its border, Russia continued to recognize Yanukovych as the legal president and to urge the reinstitution of the Feb. 21 agreement. But the West simply insisted that the coup regime was now the “legitimate” government and demanded that Russia accept the fait accompli.

Instead, Russia moved to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and in the eastern Ukraine. That, in turn, brought charges from Kerry’s State Department about Russian “aggression” and threats that a secession vote by the people of Crimea (to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia) was illegal.

What should now be obvious is that Secretary Kerry and his team have been operating with a self-serving and ever-changing set of rules as to what is legal and what isn’t, with the mainstream U.S. press tagging along, conveniently forgetting the many cases when the U.S. government has supported plebiscites on self-determination, including just recently Kosovo and South Sudan, or when the U.S. military has intervened in other countries, including wars supported by Sen. Kerry, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and so forth.)

But another reason why the Ukraine crisis represents a make-or-break moment for Obama’ s presidency is that he is facing extraordinary attacks from neocons and Republicans accusing him of inviting “Russian aggression” by making deals with international adversaries, rather than making war against them.

So, if Obama hopes to continue cooperating with Putin in efforts to resolve disputes with Iran, Syria and elsewhere, he is going to have to explain bluntly to the American people the real choices they face: continued warfare and costly confrontations as advocated by McCain and the neocons or compromise in the cause of peace, even with difficult adversaries.

At this point, it looks as if Obama will again try to finesse the crisis in Ukraine, embracing Official Washington’s false narrative while perhaps holding back a bit on the retaliation against Russia. But that sort of timidity is what put Obama in the corner that he now finds himself.

If Obama hopes to give himself some real maneuvering room – and have a lasting influence on how the United States deals with the rest of the world – he finally has to speak truth to the American people. He finally has to find his voice as Eisenhower and Kennedy did.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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3 comments on “Can Obama Speak Strongly for Peace?

  1. Even after five years as president, Democrats are still making excuses for Obama’s failures. The bottom line is that he’s either a weak president who is easily persuaded to do the bidding of the elite power structure or he shares the power structure’s aspirations. Both scenarios are equally bad. Obama appointed the old Clinton hacks who deregulated the economy and caused the crisis to his economic team. He appointed Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to State, both of whom are figures supporting the aspirations of the power structure. He appointed neocons and their sympathizers like Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice to powerful diplomatic positions. Where are the true progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair, Brooksley Born, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, etal that have stood up for middle class workers and know how the economy operates? They are nowhere to be found in the Obama administration. Obama keeps pitching austerity just like the GOP and shares their view that the government must tighten its belt just like the states and individuals, when just the opposite is true in a depressed economy where the government has to spend if the private sector wants to save. Why do people think he needs to appease a wild eyed neocon like John McCain who never met a war he didn’t love? And why does he so love counterproductive drone warfare, sanctioning other countries, destroying constitutional privacy protections, expanding military bases in Djibouti and the Philippines, protecting Wall Street criminals from prosecution, etc, etc? Wake up folks, the guy is not up to the job whether it’s through weakness or intention. It’s not a question of whether the Democrats are better than the GOP. It’s whether there are some principles that are worth going to the map for. Until the Democratic Party gets back to its traditional role of defending middle class workers from the predatory tactics and war mongering of the oligarchs that now run both parties we will see the country continue to decline. The greatest prosperity the country ever enjoyed with the least inequality was during the fifties and sixties went we had two parties that kept each other in check. Now both are controlled by the same oligarchs.

  2. Ирина Гвоздева on said:

    It is unfortunate that the U.S. government and the European Union, which now operates at the behest of America, do not see the danger that they themselves create their short-sighted management. What is happening in Ukraine, could escalate into a global catastrophe, which pushes Obama’s policies and the EU.

    Simple inhabitant of planet Earth from Russia
    Irina

  3. Speakthetruthnomatter on said:

    Robert Parry gives IKE great credit here for his warnings about the “military-industrial complex.” And also praises JFK. What let’s look at what these two men DID while in office and not what they SAID. Ike presided over a dextupling was it, or was it a 15 fold increase – who knows? – of our nuclear capacity during his 8 years in office. He fed the gluttonous military industrial complex with enormous relish and only as he was leaving office and relinquishing power did he warn about the results of the very policies he had enacted. How that earns credit with Mr. Parry is mystifying. JFK – put the first soldiers into Vietnam ultimately leading to the quagmire it evolved into under his successor and Vice-President, LBJ. If one has fidelity to principle based on actions rather than rhetoric IKE and JFK are woefully wanting.