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Obama Bashes Bush's Moral Chauvinism

By Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast - December 10, 2009

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In Oslo, Obama declared that America is as capable of evil as anyone else. Peter Beinart on his sharp break with Bush-and his call for a new world order. Plus, watch his speech below and read the full transcript here.

Harry Truman, who George W. Bush often praised but never understood, once said that “We all have to recognize—not matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” To Bush and Cheney and Palin, the sentiment is offensive. Why should America not do as it pleases? After all, since our power stems from our virtue, the more unrestrained we are, the more good we will do.

Click Below to Watch Obama's Speech

But Barack Obama, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Thursday morning, showed that he understands just what Truman meant. Because he understands, in a way Cheney and Palin never will, that true moral universalism requires recognizing that Americans are just as capable of evil as anyone else. And that means recognizing that we are in just as much need of restraint. For Obama and Truman, the paradox of American exceptionalism is that only by recognizing that we are not inherently better than anyone else, and thus must bind our power within a framework of law, can we distinguish ourselves from the predatory powers of the past.

• John Milton Cooper, Jr.: Obama’s Wilsonian Moment That’s what Obama was trying to say in his address at Oslo City Hall. At the speech’s core lay a vision of moral reciprocity totally lacking during the Bush years. For Bush, American virtue was taken as a given. There were fallen, sinful human beings, and then there were Americans—and from non-proliferation to counter-terrorism to human rights, we instructed our moral inferiors on how to behave. If they had the audacity to try to turn the monologue into a dialogue, and judge the morality of our actions, we trotted out John Bolton.

In Oslo, Obama took direct aim at that moral chauvinism, declaring that “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” He didn’t just demand that Iran and North Korea eschew nuclear weapons; he called nuclear non-proliferation a compact, which requires that nuclear powers like the US begin to disarm. He didn’t just condemn human rights horrors in Congo, Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran; he acknowledged that an unfettered America is capable of moral horror itself—which is why we must ban torture and submit to the Geneva Conventions. He didn’t just praise US soldiers; he praised the peacekeepers of the United Nations, thus acknowledging that military force can occur within a framework of international institutions and international law.

Beneath all this lay a recognition that America’s struggle against evil in the world starts with the struggle against the evil in ourselves. That internal struggle is harder. As Adlai Stevenson once said, “it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” But it is precisely because it is hard—because demanding due process for terrorism suspects or dismantling our nuclear stockpiles or curbing our carbon emissions requires us to take risks and make sacrifices rather than simply demanding risk and sacrifice from others—that this internal struggle can inspire people around the world.

America’s internal struggle—on civil liberties, nuclear non-proliferation, the environment or health care—may not be going as quickly or smoothly as many American liberals would like. But after eight years of self-righteousness abroad and complacency at home, it has begun. That’s what was being honored today in Oslo.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

For more of The Daily Beast, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast at editorial@thedailybeast.com.

Wow.I never thought I'd say this. Great artical Mr. Beinart.Not because it backs POTUS, but because it was well thought out.Speechless.

I second that--great article. I hate to say that it was a nice surprise, coming from The Beast and all, but...

I have had enough. When President Obama declares that "evil" exists, I am forced to look forward to the day when a Nobel Peace Prize recipient does not resort to scare tactics and name-calling to justify his predator-drone murder of thousands of civilians. Or maybe I should look backward. This speech was the most disgusting display of self-aggrandizing superiority and justification for murder and destruction that a Peace Prize recipient has ever made. May the blessings of peace, true peace, not Obama's peace, be with us all.

Obama defended FISA in court, not a break with Bush.Obama increased the faith based initative, not a break with Bush.Obama increased the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a break with Bush.Obama has failed to close Quantanamo or bring troops home from Iraq, not a break with Bush.Obama continues to torture people in Bagram, not a break with Bush.Obama defeneded DOMA and DADT in court, not a break with Bush.Obama supports corporate welfare, not a break with Bush.Obama is against the public option, not a break with Bush.

Obama breathes air, not a break from Bush.Obama has a wife, not a break with Bush.Obama stands when he pees, not a break with Bush.

The fact that Obama went there and again apologized and minimizes our Country is appalling. And you libs don't waste your time bashing Bush, because I didn't like him either and I am not listening...Obama is in bed with Wall Street and Unions, and this congress both parties need to go! Tea Party here we come...

Obama defended FISA in court, not a break with Bush. Obama - courts have final say over government spying. Bush has argued that a war-time chief executive has powers that trump FISAhttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/44/2008/06/20/obama_supports_fisa_legisla tio.html [More of a gray area than simple as the same or not the same] Obama increased the faith based initative, not a break with Bush."If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion," Obama said in the July 1 speech at the East Side Community Ministry.", "But since Election Day, the president and his aides have been far less clear on whether the new faith-based initiatives office will significantly depart from the Bush administration's policy."This one is still being decided. I expect changes. Obama increased the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan[When did we go to war against Pakistan??] Obama has failed to close Quantanamo or bring troops home from Iraq, not a break with Bush.[You have to have a plan before you can close things down. so true for now, but really, did we expect it to happen the first year?] Obama continues to torture people in Bagram[True, Pretty sure Bagram does not comply with Geneva compact.] Obama defeneded DOMA and DADT in court, [True], not a break with Bush, [We will see: coming soon. http://ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=4386] Obama supports corporate welfare.True, but what would have happened if he had not? Obama is against the public optionWho knows on this one?

Obama isn't arrogant, a break from BushObama didn't start any unnecessary wars, a break from BushObama won't cut taxes for the wealthy, a break from BushObama is attempting to close Guantanamo, a break from BushObama has improved our divisive rhetoric with the rest of the world, a break from BushObama is for universal health care, a break from BushObama may be culpable in an numbers of areas and certainly has achieved very little in terms of major accomplishments thus far, but he's a vast improvement over Bush. Give me a break.

Obama can construct a cohesive and sensical sentence on his own, a break from Bush.

you mean all the lies Obama speaks you call sentences?

0bama can read words off of a teleprompter a break from Bush.0bama can spend the country into oblivian a break from Bush.0bama can give 6 million dollars of taxpayer money to pay off his primary opponents campaign debt for her a break from Bush.0bama can celebrate 10% unemployment as a good thing a break from Bush.0bama has a media who will do anything for him a break from Bush.0bama will shamelssy accept awards that he didn't earn a break from Bush.0bama will fight wars without trying to win them a break from th 43 that preceded him minus Johnson.0bama is clearly in over his head a break from the 43 that preceded him.Any wonder he has the lowest approval rating of any first year president ever.... EVER.

"0bama can spend the country into oblivian a break from Bush."Wow...there are so many things wrong with this statement (besides the spelling and grammar) that I don't even know where to begin.

glad you said it!

This prize has nothing to do with peace. (The President just increased our troops in Afghanistan by another 30,000). This prize was given to a newly elected President that at the time of the nominating and selecting process did not accomplish anything at all relating to peace.

One of the most enlightened and forward thinking men in history was Ghengis Khan whose foresight and forceful methods created the foundations for what we now enjoy as modern life.His manner of mixing civilizations thru forced integration and tithing a flat 10% to his throne ,or tent if you will, and leaving conquered peoples to practice whatever religion they wished as well as insisting on the equality of women in society and the establishment of roads across vast areas etc., launched many of the facets of modern life we now take for granted.He never would have received the Nobel Peace prize although peace was maintained by force, much like the Pax Romana Era. The USA has used force to protect and rescue people from WW1 onward,including Sweden,France,Germany et al. Peace can only be maintained by judicious force until Human Nature is altered so perhaps that is Savior Obama's goal, change people through his one world order , or we will pay his penalty for failure. So the question is , what will this world vision cost,who pays and who rules the party of power.

Your reasoning is that of every tyrant who subjugated Others in the name of "civilization." The weakness of this hellish dogma is it fails to take into account that the definition of civilization is not the sole prerogative of the conqueror - the conquered also have something to say about it. Subjugation to alien laws and enslavement to strange cultures equals civilization only to those holding the guns (or spears). For the millions who have their families murdered, their homes razed, their cultures destroyed, the enslaver's assurances that the carnage was worth the cost, because he brought civilization (true religion, peace, laws), is of little comfort. Maybe it is time to adopt a new approach. Live and let live. Do unto others, as you would have other do unto you. If anyone slays another, it is as if he killed all humankind. That which you have done unto them, (Others) you have done unto me. Only Peace begets Peace. In the entire history of humankind, no war has ever secured Peace. If we truly want to create civilization, we must destroy war, the machines of war, and the dogmas of war.

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