Tag Archives: Obama

Explosions in the Sky

Last night I walked the streets of lower Manhattan to the sounds of an artillery barrage on the Hudson River. Muffled booms rolled through empty neighborhoods and smoky flashes lit up the sky between the dark buildings. Five barges sat in mid-river and launched a spectacular pyrotechnics display. The proximity of American patriotism to our instinct for bellicosity is nothing new. We’ve always had a soft spot for marching warriors and explosions in the sky when we honor our country and I personally am a rabid fireworks fan. But in the midst of the eye-popping cloudbursts and sparkling veils and the gut-rumbling blasts, my mind jumped momentarily to the real bombs and missiles that continue to zoom around the world in our collective name.

These troubling mental intrusions came on strong this year. Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan are on their sixth and ninth years, respectively, of U.S. sponsored fireworks, and America’s terroristic enemies continue to scheme and concoct devilish displays of their own. From North Korea’s feeble missile lobbing experiments to Al-Qaeda’s supposed plotting for a nuclear attack, there is no shortage of threats, credible or not. Perhaps patriotic sentiments are never as easy or pure as we are told, but I wish I could enjoy the memory of our independence with a little less war-guilt or terror-fear, which seem to be the two poles of U.S. foreign policy.

As I stood watching the celebration, I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. He wrote:

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will.

65 years later, these achetypes have changed little. While President Obama proclaims the goal of a nuclear free world, Richard Perle sticks by the advice he once gave to Reagan:

“Nuclear weapons are here to stay. You can’t uninvent them. A world without nuclear weapons isn’t credible and I wouldn’t want it even if we could.”

Perle’s view is terribly frightening to me but to dismiss it as lunacy would be to deny the serious traction it has in the defense policy community. Can we reconcile the children of dark and lightness? Can we safeguard our homeland without trampling those around us? Is it possible to untangle our national character from our longstanding militancy without weakening our collective sense of self?


George Packer’s take

Fantastic commentary from George Packer on the U.S. Foreign Policy response to the Iranian election crisis:

Just when Obama seemed to have fallen a step behind events, he emerged from his silence to do what no politician in our time could have managed: emphasize American respect for Iranian sovereignty and yet, in measured terms, make it clear that the U.S. cannot be indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in Iran. He spoke with calm eloquence to the millions of people who have filled the streets at great risk—spoke to their hopes and their courage. He proved that an American President can lend his voice to “universal values” without sounding like a self-righteous fool. And he showed the emptiness of the eternal argument between realism and idealism. When foreign policy is articulated by a thoughtful politician in the middle of an intense and unfolding drama, the abstractions melt away. It’s actually possible to be pragmatic without being indecent. Why shouldn’t it be?

Full text from the New Yorker

Drowned 183 Times

How a democratic state ultimately accounts for its use of extreme violence during wartime reveals much about its political character.

-James D. Le Sueur, from the  introduction to Henri Alleg’s The Question

Several years ago, I heard Henri Alleg speak on his experiences in Algeria and tell the story of his famous work, The Question, which is widely credited with turning French public opinion against the war in Algeria. In person, Alleg was small and portly, and spoke softly with a heavy accent so that the audience had to lean forward to catch his words. It was hard to believe that this frail old man was the one who brought France to task for its war crimes.

Now that President Obama has brought some of our own nightmarish violence into the light with the release of C.I.A. torture records, we need to ask ourselves how our democratic state will acount for its actions. Obama is resisting Congressional calls for a truth commission, but if ghastly new evidence keeps coming to light- such as the use of insects and the astounding 183 waterboardings of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed- the President will find it increasingly difficult to hold back further inquiry.