Exclusive: President Obama defended the Iran nuclear deal and urged Americans to support this initiative for peace, but his choice of American University for the speech invited comparisons with JFK’s famous words that “we all inhabit this small planet” and Obama fell far short of that standard, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Trying to rally public support for a diplomatic agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, President Barack Obama went to American University in Washington D.C., where in 1963 President John F. Kennedy gave perhaps his greatest speech arguing against the easy talk of war in favor of the difficult work for peace.
Obama’s speech lacked the universal appeal and eloquent nobility of Kennedy’s oration, but represented in a programmatic way what Kennedy also noted, that the details and deal-making of diplomacy are often less dramatic than the clenching of fists and the pounding of chests that rally a nation to war. Obama went through the pluses of what he felt the Iran deal would achieve and the minuses of what its rejection would cause.
Obama said congressional approval of the agreement would gain the narrow but important goal of ensuring that Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon while congressional rejection would lead toward another war in the Middle East, thus adding to the chaos started by President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option, another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative, I am stating a fact,” Obama said.
“So let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
Obama also called out many of the deal’s opponents, noting that many were vocal advocates for invading Iraq and that some are now openly acknowledging their preference for another war against Iran.
Obama said, “They’re opponents of this deal who accept the choice of war. In fact, they argue that surgical strikes against Iran’s facilities will be quick and painless. But if we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple.
“The only certainty in war is human suffering, uncertain costs, unintended consequences. We can also be sure that the Americans who bear the heaviest burden are the less-than-1 percent of us, the outstanding men and women who serve in uniform, and not those of us who send them to war.”
Still a ‘War President’
Apparently seeking to establish his own credibility as a “war president,” Obama also took note of how many countries he has launched military attacks in and against during his presidency:
“I’ve ordered military action in seven countries. There are times when force is necessary, and if Iran does not abide by this deal, it’s possible that we don’t have an alternative. But how can we, in good conscience, justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives, that has been agreed to by Iran, that is supported by the rest of the world and that preserves our option if the deal falls short?
“How could we justify that to our troops? How could we justify that to the world or to future generations? In the end, that should be a lesson that we’ve learned from over a decade of war. On the front end, ask tough questions, subject our own assumptions to evidence and analysis, resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war, worry less about being labeled weak, worry more about getting it right.”
One might note that as worthy as those guidelines are, they have often been violated by the Obama administration, such as its dubious allegations against the Syrian government regarding the infamous sarin gas attack on Aug. 21, 2013, and against Russia over the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. In both cases, Obama and his administration have kept from public view evidence that they claim to possess while decrying skeptics who have questioned the conventional wisdom.
But Obama did take to task the neoconservatives and other warmongers who have followed a pattern of exaggerating dangers to frighten the American people into support for more warfare:
“I know it’s easy to play in people’s fears, to magnify threats, to compare any attempt at diplomacy to Munich, but none of these arguments hold up. They didn’t back in 2002, in 2003, they shouldn’t now. That same mind-set in many cases offered by the same people, who seem to have no compunction with being repeatedly wrong.”
In conclusion, Obama added, “John F. Kennedy cautioned here more than 50 years ago at this university that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war. But it’s so very important. It is surely the pursuit of peace that is most needed in this world so full of strife.”
Usual Iran Bashing
Yet, while Obama made an impassioned case for a diplomatic solution to the Iran-nuclear dispute and defended the details of the agreement he also drifted back into the typical propagandistic Iran bashing that has become de rigueur in Official Washington.
Obama salted his praise for diplomacy with the typical insults toward Iran, portraying it as some particularly aggressive force for evil in the Middle East, juxtaposed against the forces for good, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikdoms and Israel all of which have spread more violence and chaos in the Middle East than Iran.
In that sense, Obama’s speech fell far short of the statement of universal principles on behalf of humanity that was the hallmark of Kennedy’s speech on June 10, 1963, a declaration that was remarkable coming at a peak of the Cold War and almost unthinkable today amid the petty partisan rhetoric of American politicians. In contrast to Obama’s cheap shots at Iran, Kennedy refrained from gratuitous Moscow bashing.
Instead, Kennedy outlined the need to collaborate with Soviet leaders to avert dangerous confrontations, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 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.”
Standing Up to Cynics
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. 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.
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 militaryindustrial 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.”
Despite the practical value of Obama’s spirited defense of the Iran nuclear deal, nothing in his AU speech on Wednesday deserved the immortality of the truth-telling by those two predecessors.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). 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.