Jonah Raskin on Obama Speech : Woefully Ignorant

Barack Obama in Oslo. Photo from CBS.

An open letter to President Obama:
Your speech was a betrayal of American ideals

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / December 11, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I read your Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech and found it woefully ignorant. Or perhaps it was deliberately meant to mislead. If so it would belong in the same camp as all the war markers who have inhabited the White House.

If you were to read your history — say as written by Howard Zinn — you would see that the United States was born in wartime and evolved in war and that it has been the nation that has bombed more countries in the 20th and 21st centuries than any other nation in the world. The United States is a country that is defined by its bombings, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, to the bombings of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You say that, “In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable.” How could you forget or omit to say that the United States was at that moment at War in Vietnam. The United States also invaded Laos and Cambodia. Mr. Nixon was a war criminal. He violated the basic rights of Americans during the Vietnam Era, using the FBI and CIA to stifle dissent and to try to destroy the anti-war movement. Not a word did I hear in your speech about American pacifists, from Henry David Thoreau to the young men who burned their draft cards and refused to be part of an invading army in South East Asia in the 1960s and the 1970s.

You say that, “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” This leaves out the immoral role of the United States in toppling democratically elected governments like that of Salvador Allende in Chile. It neglects to mention the role of the U.S. military in protecting U.S. economic interests in Africa and Asia. The United States had been an empire from its inception. Indians were massacred for hundreds of years; colonies acquired in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

You talk about international law and America’s adherence to it, but the Bush administration violated international law and human rights for eight years. Not a word have you said about that. America led the world, you say, in terms of protecting human rights, preventing genocide and restricting dangerous weapons. You turn a blind eye on the fact that the United States was the first and the only nation to use nuclear weapons against another nation, that genocide took place in this country, and that the U.S. has been an arms dealer to the world.

Your speech is a betrayal of American ideals. It is a betrayal of democracy. It is an abuse of power. It is an act of deception cloaked behind pretty words and beautiful rhetoric. It cannot hide the realities of America’s belligerence the world over, or the way that the U. S. propped up dictatorial regimes on every continent for almost the entirety of the 20th century. You mention Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. in your speech. You praise him. But you cannot hide behind him. He was a peacemaker. You are a war maker. The blood of our own soldiers and the people of Afghanistan is on your hands.


Jonah Raskin

[Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism: Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (Monthly Review Press), and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press.]

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16 Responses to Jonah Raskin on Obama Speech : Woefully Ignorant

  1. masterspork says:

    Except that the author is using very selective use of history. I mean it seems that he goes out of his way to try to lay all the woes of the world on America.

    Like the atomic bombing, he neglects to mention the actions of the Japanese military in the 30s? Also it is easy to say that the atomic bomb was not needed, but if you had to be the one that had to invade the proposed attack on

  2. Richard says:

    MS, Calm down, take a deep breath. I was just about to ask Thorn to dump your comments because I found myself agreeing with you too often lately.(Joke) But I gotta say you are up to your old misinformed tricks with this one. 1. Jonah does not have to go out of his way to blame many of the woes of the world on the doorstep of the U.S. GOVERNMENT, their crimes are legendary, they could fill a

  3. Didier says:

    Thanks Jonah. I’ve translated your letter into French. People like you, and like all the contributors to The Rag, are now the only remaining Hope

  4. Richard says:

    Anon, We already know how to collect capital, it involves a get-away car, a firearm, and a bank with one entrance.
    You are on the wrong blog.

  5. Sid says:

    Richard, Thorne (and Jonah Raskin):
    The OT and BS bloggers that you’ve been plagued with recently are strangely to the point of Obama’s speech. Indeed, your own policy, we’ll call it the ‘Rag Doctrine’, isn’t much different than what Obama stated in his Nobel speech.

    Comment Policy: This blog enforces a specific comment policy that prohibits personal attack, goading and harassment, and other malicious remarks. We will delete remarks considered inappropriate, at the discretion of the editors.

    What you are saying is what Obama said; that force will be used when necessary in order to maintain standards of appropriate behavior as set by yourselves and at your own discretion. I support your position regarding that statement.

    Likewise, I support Obama’s parallel thesis: that history proves that mankind cannot be governed without the unwanted but occasionally necessary use of force. That’s all.

    He wasn’t excusing the abuse of force, and I find it of more than passing interest that Raskin never addresses Obama’s thesis directly. Instead, he hurls insults and howls for the historically abused. The history he raises has nothing to do with Obama’s argument, any more than Catholic book-burnings or Constitutional rights to free speech have anything to do with your efforts to moderate your blog.

    The question before Obama (and yourselves) is simple; what to do with individuals, groups or nations that do not respect the rules? His conclusion, like yours, is that it is necessary to ENFORCE them… and note the non-coincidental use of the term ‘force’ within the term used.

    Your efforts to police your blog have nothing to do with the sins of the past, the manifold and evident sins of the powers that were to control free speech at their moment in history, and were I to pen a rant against the historical abuses of those who have attempted to control it and raise them as an argument against your own efforts to moderate the Rag Blog, I would be as irrelevantly off base and out of order as is Raskin.

    To be clear: it is not that I disagree with Raskins interpretation of many of the historical facts he cites. Rather, that they have nothing whatsoever to do with Obama’s thesis: that in the real world force is occasionally and tragically necessary.

    The statement ‘Pacifism would not have stopped Hitlers Armys’ must be answered if Raskin’s ‘argument’ is to have any relevancy at all.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Who is the Aim person posting? Obama’s speech was perfect. This article is off its mark.

  7. Richard says:

    Sid, Maybe I missed the rules, I usually pay attention to them so that I will know exactly which ones I am breaking and which I will break next. And the rule that Saddam was breaking that caused the U.S. government to invade his country, hang him, occupy his country, install a puppet government and allow our corporations to steal their oil. Which rule was that? Can we bring democracy to the Middle East by force of arms? Somehow that seems to flyin the face of what I learned in school domocracy was. Mr. Cooper my civics teacher, who I later realized was a John Bircher, taught that Democracy was government at the will of the governed. Elections even honest ones are not a necessary part of that equasion. I might draw your attention to the absence of “honest” elections in recent years since the CIA learned how to rig them, even here in the Cradle of Liberty, the Arsenal of Democracy. I would be betraying my anarchist principals to take part in the farce, but I do enjoy farce as a pastime so I like to watch. That there was no other way to deal with the two countries seems incongruous to me, for starters we might have just left them alone, rather than imagining a “rule” infraction that demanded blood, murder, mayhem, and the denial of their right to be governed as they willed it. O’bomber and you are dead wrong that force was the only road open in our excellent adventure to the riches of the Middle East. Bucanan book H, C, and the Unnecessary War made the point that war is not the only way.

  8. Sid says:

    For the record, both Obama and myself were opposed to the invasion of Iraq, so your argument, like Raskins, is off the mark. As I said in my first post, I’m not in general disagreement with a ‘Raskin’ interpretation of history, nor with your summation of our behavior and motives in Iraq.

    However, I’m still looking for an answer to the problem posed to pacifists (or anarchists) by the advance of Hitler’s armies… or in this instance, the terror of fundamentalist Jihad. As I doubt I’ll get an answer from Mr. Raskin here on your blog, I’ll ask you: you say that you are an anarchist, so what is the anarchist’s response? What would have been your response in Sarajevo to Serbian genocide?

    Obama’s position is clear, just as is your own rule for bloggers posted clearly at the top of your blog: inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. How one responds to the challenge of inappropriate behavior depends upon the behavior. Neither Obama nor I believe that Iraq met the standard to necessitate war. However, he (and myself) do believe that the existence of a group dedicated not only to your destruction but the establishment of a 7th century system of governance over a large portion of the worlds people is intolerable and all means must be used to destroy them… among which means is force.

    The elimination of intolerable behavior on your blog is a simple click of a mouse, while his is far more difficult and destructive response. However, in my view, they are parallel acts, differing not in hypothesis but in scale. Raskin tries to make the argument that the accuser is so tainted that the accusation has no merit (that American history itself disqualifies any American president from making a moral argument). I separate the two, the validity of an act from the history of the organization, as even pathological liars occasionally tell the truth and it is the value of the claim and not the history of the claimant that is the more pertinent.

    To put it in current terms, getting a lecture on the virtues of fidelity from Tiger Woods may seems absurd, but that doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong.

  9. Richard says:

    Sid, Fortunately I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions. But I guess we are dealing like I did. I don’t have an answer, I know I would make a pragmatic decision based on what would happen at the moment. Indulge me in a little story, When Nixxxon went to China, I happened to be visiting a friend at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, (on other business) The morning after the state dinner with Chou I saw my friend Kuo in the reception area, Ah Ha, I said we got him now, and Kissinger too, you (meaning China) should arrest them both and hang their asses. Kuo responded: We too dislike doing business with Nixxxon, we would much rather do business with you, so when you are President, call me right away. So, I am not the one to ask what would I do. I do wonder if we should have done anything in Bosnia. Phil Ochs sings “We are the cops of the world.” True, but I wonder why that is or why we should be? I fail to see what our responsibility was there, except to feed the war machine. We should on the other hand do something about the 2 million displaced persons in Colombia, about the 10,000 dead civilains since we initated Plan Colombia. What can we do? Join FARC in the mountains? Sell them guns? No it is simpler than that, we should stop paying for COLAR and the paracos that are committing these crimes. We do have a
    responsibility there because we have sided with the coke dealing, death squad running, criminal government and we are supplying troops and billions of your dollars to keep this tragedy going.
    We should stop making war the answer to everything. There is always another way, in everything, I guess is you are a big gun the whole world looks like a target.

  10. Very Fed Up says:

    I remind you that the armies of Hitler were not stopped by invasion and occupation. They were stopped by a strategic defensive in the Soviet Union at a cost of 20 million lives there alone. One cannot say that, it is not allowed, but it is nevertheless the TRUTH. The absurd cold war “patriotic” lies we have been forced to tell ourselves are now affecting our analysis and thus our policy and that is disastrous. No wonder ancient communities concluded that telling lies was among their prohibited behavior, as in the “ten commandments” To wit: it is patently absurd to imagine that not appeasing Hitler at Munich could have stopped the advance of Germany considering what it actually took to stop German!

    And it was Hitler who did the invading and occupying, to begin with, anyway. We have not been invaded! No one else lately has invaded anyone at all, except Georgia invaded Abkhazia!

    In Afghanistan we have a war that originally was not to be a war, it was to be a BRIEF police action to get Bin Laden, and if the Taliban fell in that process, fine. It was sold that way and I bought it that way, and I DO NOT FORGET what I bought into.

    This police action has morphed into the greatest mission drift in human history!

    But most of all, I find Mr. Obama’s Neocon view that the USA was some kind of heroic provider of “security” to the world during the cold war, and protector of democracy, and earned some right to be the moral victor of the cold war, to be SIMPLY OBSCENE.

    First, the vast majority of the people of the world saw the Cold War and its local wars as PROXY WARS and felt trapped between the two superpowers. Only a minority in “new Europe” feels otherwise. Second, it was in fact a “cold” war and winning such a war does not entitle you to the prize.

    Third, this position denies the actual experience of many peoples.

    Let’s take, say the People of South Africa: does Mr. Obama believe they will see what we did in supporting the South African Apartied regime for DECADES as now somehow morally superior and worthy of declarations of victory and heroic defense of the people of the world?

    Will the people of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru etc. see the crass and open support of murderous and brutal right wing regimes as “heroic”?

    Will the relatives of those one million Indonesians William Casey slaughtered in Indonesia now believe that the USA was heroic.

    And let’s DO take the Vietnamese: they want to trade, they want to advance economically, and put everything behind them, but Mr. Obama is evidently not at all satisfied with that!

    Mr. Obama evidently wants to force the Vietnamese to lie about and deny their OWN EXPEIRENCE, so that Mr. Obama and his neocon buddies can proclaim victory and cover over their part of the holocaust the Cold War inflicted on so many people. Or lets take the Cambodians, who were a peaceful, independent nation until Nixon invaded them and deposed their king, Sihanouk. If Nixon had left them alone, there never would have been a Khmer Rouge!

    Does Mr. Obama believe that he can blame all that we did to people the world over on the Soviet Union and get away with that? Only in the Baltics, I assure you, and not even there among the actual people.

    Yarite, the Soviets made me do it?

    Will the our tender mercies for so many decades be forgotten because Mr. Obama makes a speech?

    What actually is happening is that the paradigm that supported the unilateral rule of the USA within the western alliance collapsed when the Soviets did, and Obama DOES NOT GET THAT.

    This, I believe, is a massive, disastrous strategic error, of historic magnitude.

  11. Richard says:

    VFU, An excellent analysis. Thank you.

  12. Sid says:

    “An excellent analysis”???!!!!

    Which was the excellent part? The first WWII paragraph, where he/she makes Obama’s point about the occasional legitimacy or war as a tool of policy, that in certain instances force is the only methodology of dissuasion? If that was it, then thanks for making the point that Obama made and that I was seconding.

    After that, it simply gets silly. That the original Afghanistan incursion was a ‘BRIEF police action’ to get Bin Laden? Really? I’d appreciate a cite for that ‘fact’.

    From there, the ‘analysis’ is that the ‘cold war’ was some sort of “OBSCENE” figment of our collective imaginations, not a ‘real’ war and so not worthy of a claim of victory? Right. Tell that to the Hungarians, the Chechs, the Poles, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians, the Yugoslavs, the Albanians, the East Germans, the Uzbecks, the Ukranians, the Georgians, the …. well, I hope you get the idea. Tell all of those hundreds of millions of peoples that the Soviet Empire wasn’t worth fighting, and ask them who fought it for them. While there, ask them if they’d like to go back to the ‘good old days’ of the Soviet Empire. That was Obama’s point, and it’s valid. It is not inconsistent with progressive thinking to recognize historical fact.

    The price of that war was not small, but the victory was huge. VFU seems to agree that the death of 20 million (that number, BTW, is a combination of the WWII deaths PLUS the Gulag deaths… but I digress) Russians was worth the victory, and I would say that the temporary support of military dictatorships by the U.S. all over the world during the cold war was also a price worth paying. Today, as a result of that victory, democracy reigns in Latin America… leftist democracies at that!

    So yes… there was a war, it was a war of proxies, and the democracies won. Not without cost, but if VFU is able to accept the 20 million Russian dead as a price necessary to stop Hitler (and by default all the rest of the horrors of war, like Dresden, the mass bombing of civilian targets, etc), then the loss of a number far lower to stop a force far bigger would seem to be a very logical moral and intellectual step to take. I can’t oblige either of you to take that step, but I can point out the hypocrisy of your not taking it.

    However, and to return to the point at hand… in the end, VFU continues to make Obama’s point: that tragically, force is occasionally a legitimate tool of national policy. The difference, it would appear, is what we’re willing to fight over. VFU appears not to recognize the legitimacy nor the necessity of the 50 year struggle against tyranny. I don’t share that view.

    Note: my two older brothers were born in Yugoslavia when Tito murdered his way to dictatorial power. My grandmother was instrumental in saving hundreds of thousands of Eastern European ‘DPs’ from death during that war, nearly losing her own life in that effort. I have lived for 40 years in Latin America, had a business in Chile during and after Allende, and currently live in one of the new Latin American democracies. Now that it’s all over, I believe that, on balance, it was a necessary war. That doesn’t represent an argument in favor of the excesses of that or any war, any more than recognizing the need to stop Hitler represents an argument in favor of fire-bombing civilian populations. It’s simply a recognition that occasionally, for nations as for individuals, force is the only resolution.


  13. Richard says:

    Sid, Let me correct some of your mis-impressions of me. First I am not the Richard who has the button to delete comments on this blog. I am not a pacicifist. I am not a “progressive” altho I am not too sure about that ’cause I don’t even know what a progressive is. I am not a hypocrite, I have held the same social and political views (with some minor adjustments) for well over 40 years, and I do not expect others to be held to a standard that I myself do not adhere to myself. I hope that clears up what I am not. I am an anarchist, an anti-capitalist, (I hold nothing to be my private property to the exclusion of anyone else,) an anti imperialist, I am a warrior, first a vet of Cold War I, and a willing participant in some wars of national liberation, and some struggles to return land to the tiller. I have belonged to two different unions, and support organized labor fights. I essentially am homeless, and have been for a long, long time.

    I would remind you that the countries that you mentioned were under the thumb of the (former) Soviet Union because they were sold out by unholy agreements at Yalta and Potsdam and that the “Iron Curtain” was an invention of two speaches by W. Churchill and received with glee by the “Masters of war” and war mongers in general. It was built on lies and maintained by lies for 45 years, much like the phony “War on drugs” and like the two or three wars we are actively engaged in right now only to the benefit of the War Profiteers. I’m for using force to better my life, such as against my opressors. Hope this clears up your ILLUSIONS of me and helps you with some Illusions you hold, (if any.)

  14. Sid says:

    Richard: Thanks for the clarification, and I apologize for any misunderstandings caused by lack of same (clarity).

  15. Very Fed Up says:

    Well, Sid, your view and Obama’s are the same…you and he make up struggles that never existed! As I recall, no one but Lech Wallensa fought the Soviet Union.

    Or are you talking about Berzinski’s criminals from all over the Middle East he airlifted into Afghanistan, armed and named “Muhahadeen” to fight a proxy war for the USA against the Soviet Union in Afthanistan?

    Everyone was too busy either fighting the USA or being smashed between the Soviets and the USA, caught in the cross-fire, like the Shah of Iran, the IRanians and Iraqis, etc. etc.

    You are living in a FANTASY world that never existed, and never will exist except on the television, and on top of that, only on the television in certain parts of the world!

    You are so certain who and what was won! Me,I don’t think anyone has won much of anything yet! I think you and Obama et al. are really supremely foolish to think so.

    The only thing I do know without a doubt is that something new is emerging, and it will not be the Soviets or the USA Axis. It will not be Allende vs. Kissinger and Kissinger wins; it will not be the Vietnamese vs. Nixon and Nixon is a saint.

    Tell us, Sid, how you can convince African Americans they were wrong to fight Jim Crow? How can you convince South Africans they were wrong to fight Apartied? How can you convince the Vietnamese, “on balance” that they were wrong to fight the USA?

    And more importantly, why would you want to? What kind of petty, vicous set of mobsters would even try such a thing, even if they believed it to be true? Why would they want to humiliate and insult people that they themselves slaughtered so cruely?

    No, your problem and Obama’s is that you are holding onto the past; your doing so is made all the worse by the fact that you also have absurd illusions about what the past was.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Why did you omit Romanians?

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