Simon Schama: Barack Obama And The Moral Weight Of Human Realism

by Martin Peretz | December 14, 2009

The president came out of Oslo a different man than when he went, and Simon Schama has traced the lineaments of the change in a column in today's Financial Times. It is a sharp break for the administration which had spent its first nine months telling the rotten world that it was good and somehow persuaded itself of the nobility of the lie.

One cannot overemphasize the drama of the change for which West Point was an ambiguous and ambivalent beginning.

The political street people in Norway immediately recognized the import of Obama's words. They protested with the usual surliness brought on by drink. But what I really wonder is whether those who engineered this unusual and unprecedented Nobel also felt betrayed.

After all, they had tried to lock the president into policies for which his enthusiasm has now obviously flagged.

Of course, the only substantial evidence we have of that--aside from his rhetoric--are his commitments in Afghanistan. What he and our military do in Pakistan is still to be seen.

But the relative toughness of the American commitment in Afghanistan can play itself out by the U.S. doing nothing about the Iranian bomb. And it's not only Israel that has interests in this matter. I would say that the Middle Eastern monarchs and autocrats have even more to worry about. After all, the Persian Gulf may finally overwhelm the Arabian Sea. India will not be made happy by another nuclear power to its west.

If, on the other hand, Obama has hewn out a new path of hardheaded skepticism towards the cartography of brutality in the world the Nobel, not really deserved but instrumental for the good, will become an icon of his presidency.

Michael Walzer, the modern philosopher of "just war" theory in our time, wrote about the speech in TNR three days ago. The president actually mentioned him at the ceremony.

And, if I am not mistaken, it was Samantha Power, frequent writer for TNR which published her Pulitzer Prize book, A Problem from Hell, who had very much to do with the content of the president's speech.

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