Obama’s Nobel Prize Speech Makes War Record Cleaner Than It Really Is

By Guest Columnist Dec 17, 2009

Written by Victor Goode In his recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech he exhibited the rhetorical flourishes that electrified his campaign. Images of freedom, democracy and human rights were sprinkled throughout the speech, as were symbols of patriotism and a sense of a grand American mission. But, a closer look at the speech reveals a different picture—and maybe a different mission. Obama said that America never fought a war against a democratically elected government, but he neglected any mention of the numerous “proxy wars” that we have encouraged or directly participated in. The people of Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador and Haiti have all suffered horribly as the US armed and supported some of the worst dictatorships. In each of these conflicts dominate elites waged war against their own people with the poor suffering the most. While it’s true that these “little wars” occurred before the Obama presidency, his inaction as a brutal coup unseated a democratically elected president in Honduras suggests that despite all the rhetoric about human rights and democracy American policy may be heading in the same old direction. Two words stand out in Obama’s carefully crafted Oslo speech. While he rightfully praised the importance of civil and political rights as cornerstones of human rights, he was careful to avoid referring to economic, social and cultural rights as “rights,” a point of historical contention between the global north and south. Instead he said “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity.” By this slight of hand he sent a message that powerful economic interests need not worry about the US role in this continuing debate over human rights tilting in any new directions. There should be elections—as long as the right person is elected. This reflects our commitment to “political rights.” But the right to food, clothing shelter, water and education seem to have fallen from his vision of human rights into the murky world of “economic security.” I’m sure that people of color in developing countries were left wondering whose security and whose opportunity Obama was really referring to? So far it has not been theirs.