Anyone who’s studied communications knows that, in any kind of conflict resolution setting, all parties being willing to admit faults and seeking out “win-win” solutions is pretty much the only way to proceed.
The only way that people can trust each other is if they’re willing to admit the bad as well as the good.
At February 19, President Obama and other world leaders spoke at a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism”.
President Obama said some remarkable things that do deserve some commentary. For example: He admitted that “we must address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances… when people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder”. This is a compassionate statement, and true enough. He’s right to point out that there are millions of people in poverty who have not turned to terrorism, and even right to indicate that there is no justification for terrorism.
The whole tenor of Obama’s speech had a compassion and an empathy that was missing throughout the Bush years.
But the problem in Obama’s speech is that this compassion is self-serving. The problem is what’s missing from the speech: Really admitting fault, really doing the hard work that could lead to reconciliation.
Obama stated, for example, that “Israelis have endured the tragedy of terrorism for decades”. That’s fair enough. Car bombings and rocket attacks are horrible indeed.
But the only thing Obama had to say about Palestinians, who have also endured terrorism for decades, is a reference to “the young Palestinian working to build understanding and trust with Israelis, but also trying to give voice to her people’s aspirations”.
The terrorists that Obama lists include the Taliban, ISIL, and Boko Haram. All bad dudes, to be sure. But what about the United States? What about Israel? What about extremist groups in the United States who are still plenty dangerous? What about US-backed dictators and terrorists? Remember how the United States backed (and is still backing) Islam Karimov, someone who practiced plenty of terror? The Wikipedia page for “Authoritarian regimes supported” by the United States includes four major world regions and it still reads, “This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it”. Maybe we should focus on shrinking it, or at least not letting it grow any bigger.
One trick that people can use to sound conciliatory when they’re really offering nothing of substance is the faux apology. It goes something like this: “I’m sorry that you feel that way”. It takes on no responsibility.
The reason why Obama’s speech ultimately has almost no merit is because it takes on no responsibility, the same way that someone saying “Mistakes were made” takes on no responsibility.
A real speech that might actually lay the groundwork to end violent extremism might go something like this:
“America has for decades backed dictators and overthrown democracies. It has all too often trained terrorists and directly invaded countries against all norms of international law and peace. We supported, and still support, many of the corrupt and autocratic regimes in the region. We’ve bombed innocent people, and in so doing laid the groundwork for their loved ones to want to bomb us. We did this for oil, we did it out of fear, we did it out of racism, we did it because of the legacy of colonialism. Many people in the world have forgiven us because we often try to do good and because our citizens are usually inherently decent. We ask for more of that forgiveness and patience as we try to live up to an American creed of real heroism and justice”.
The reason why the United States has no credibility to deal with ISOL/ISIL/ISIS is because it has acted in its own interests. Obama may not have been in charge when that happened. President Bush took us to war for a variety of reasons, all of them awful. President Bush destabilized the region and empowered psychopaths in the name of democracy (and I say “in the name of” because in fact democracy was the last thing on his mind).
A speech like the one I wrote is literally the only way peace can happen in anything like the timeframe we want and need it to. The only way to move forward is for everyone to be brutally honest. But if Obama were to be honest, he’d be pilloried here, and not just by his political opponents but by his own party. And he’s apparently not courageous enough to be willing to say something a man such as him, with his degree of knowledge and his background in really valuable work, must know.
But we can’t ever rely on the institutions of power to say those honest and true things. We have to say them ourselves. Our media apparently will parrot those statements without commentary on how absurd they are and how utterly self-serving they are. We can’t trust them to speak truth to power and give power to the powerless.
So, to the world, let me say:
I am an American citizen. I try every day to be decent and good, to be heroic in my community, to speak out against injustice.
I, and people like me, have failed to stop our country from behaving monstrously.
All we can do is ask for patience and forgiveness while we figure out how.