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April 24, 2007

Obama's Big Speech
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A friend of mine emailed me late last night. The subject heading was "I'm Sold." He was, of course, referring to Obama's foreign policy speech to the Chicago Council for Global Affairs yesterday. Personally, I think there were problems with the speech, mostly having to do with his lack of his emphasis on democracy promotion (criticisms forthcoming tomorrow). But putting aside my ideological biases (what Spencer Ackerman calls my "democracy fetish") for a moment, and putting on my not-obsessed-with-democracy-promotion-hat, let me just say that it is a beautifully written speech, thematically coherent, detailed, and affecting. 

A speech does not a president make but this, I think, marks a critical step for the Obama campaign, and we may look back and say that this was a turning point. Obama is not allfluff.” He is the real thing, and yesterday’s speech confirms that Obama has the capability and the potential to be the visionary that many Democrats long for him to be. Today, it is rare to read a speech by an American politician, and think to yourself, this is why I love my country. This is why America is, in fact, the “indispensable nation,” and that, yes, we can be a shining beacon for the world. I know it is no longer fashionable in leftist circles to think such things, but when you hear Obama speak, it is possible (if you let your idealism get the better of you), to think that our generation will actually heed the call and make America what we always wished it could be. Sure, that's a high calling, and this will only inflate the largely unrealistic expectations that so many liberals have for Obama. We'll have to wait and see if he can build upon this strong showing and really explain in greater detail how he plans to implement his vision. I'm also interested to see how the other candidates respond. Although she's strong on policy specifics, Hillary can't really compete with Obama on the "vision thing." Edwards, however, has shown that he can, and I look forward to hearing him iron out his foreign policy agenda.

As for the speech itself, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. I especially loved this part. As strong a declaration of intent as I’ve seen recently:

So I reject the notion that the American moment has passed. I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.

I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world why this is so. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more.


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I appreciate Obama's specific emphasis on non-proliferation efforts, and his general theme of partnering with others to address global problems. I could have done without some of the high-flown exceptionalist rhetoric, and the tired, Clinton-era themes about globalized inderdependence, indispensible nations, American Century nostalgia, etc.

I'm also very, very disappointed that Obama failed to discuss the issues of global energy and resource supply, demand, conflict and security. These are the factors that are the main driver of potential state conflict, state instability and failure, and insurgent activity in the present era; and they have the dominant influence on the current pattern of US global military deployment around the world. Yet not a word. And for all of Obama's palpably genuine concern about Africa, it is going to prove very difficult to make sustained progress in Africa so long as it remains a field for competition among powerful energy and resource-consuming states for access and control of key markets.

Democrats and Republicans have an extraordinarily difficult time discussing these issues, despite their undeniable influence on most of the other global and national security issues they claim to carew about. For Republicans, it is generallybecause they like to keep their cards close to the vest, and not announce their planned moves in the great global game. For Democrats, it is apparently just cognitive dissonance: they can't square the fact of of military-driven energy competition with their grandiose and romantic national image, so they just pretend it isn't happening.

Just in that one, two-paragraph quote are three lines recycled from President Reagan's speeches. The one about America being "the last, best hope of Earth" he must have used about 500 times.

What does that tell us? It could tell us that Obama thinks like Ronald Reagan. It could tell us that he or (more likely) his speechwriter(s) know good material when they see it -- and, perhaps, that they figure it would work with Democrats now who weren't listening to Reagan 20 years ago. Or, it could tell us that Obama and his associates came up with those lines on their own, without any awareness that Reagan had used them all before.

I suppose the above looks like a typical government options paper, with two equally preposterous choices sandwiching a safe if uninspiring conclusion. One would expect a real visionary to show some originality, though, unless a visionary were what one was determined to see.

What nonsense! Zathras, Obama didn't take "the last, best hope of earth" from Ronald Reagan. Sheesh! Reagan borrowed it from Abe Lincoln. It was from his SotU address, 1862. I quote the concluding remarks:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

I appreciate the reference, however Lincoln's remarks in the first State of the Union address sent to Congress after announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation were made in a very specific, domestic context, to which Reagan typically did not refer and Obama doesn't either. Reagan did occasionally credit Lincoln for the line, however.

Don't make me laugh, Zathras. You're the one claiming Obama was recycling old Reagan speeches. Ha. Obama has had a Lincoln theme running through his campaign from the beginning. And if you didn't see the resonances with Lincoln's address perhaps it was because you actually listened to Reagan speak 500 times.

Reagan was an actor. He wasn't a thinker. He made words sound good and he was a master of the soundbite. But I always cringed when I heard him speak because his speeches were mangled mishmashes of famous American orators or Bible verses or inspirational poetry. "Rendezvous with Destiny"? That's FDR in 1936. And Obama referenced Lincoln correctly, Reagan used to stick in a sexist "of man on earth".

Anyway, I think you'll find Obama's Five Points to the American Moment has more in tune with Lincoln's risk than Reagan's posturing. And it will take risk to tackle Global Warming, world poverty, and shrinking resources. America has to emancipate the world it enslaves to maintain its lifestyle. But, in freeing the enslaved, we free ourselves.

And Obama didn't need to quote Lincoln. It's one of the most famous of American speeches. It's taught in any school that teaches the history of slavery in America. Unfortunately, some people think the gems that fell from Reagan's mouth came from Reagan's brain. Alas, he was only an actor. Obama, on the other hand, is The Real New Deal.

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