On Tuesday, President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic visit to Pearl Harbor, the site of the Japanese Empire’s 1941 attack on U.S. ships docked in Hawaii. The two men gave brief speeches touting the importance of reconciliation and peace, laying wreaths at a memorial for the victims of the bombing and scattering petals in the ocean water.
Though I have often criticized President Obama’s foreign policy, there is much to commend here. The United States should have “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” as Thomas Jefferson put it in 1801, and this gesture of friendship after such horrific conflict is a step in that direction.
But I was struck by the contrast between Obama’s reflection on the wars of the past and his approach to the wars of the present. Here’s part of what he said at Pearl Harbor:
Prime Minister Abe reminds us of what is possible between our nations. Wars can end, and bitter adversaries can become strong allies. The fruits of peace outweigh the plunder of war. This is the truth. It is here that we remember, even when a hatred burns, a tug of tribalism at the most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward and resist the urge to demonize those who are different. The sacrifice made here, the anguish of war, it reminds us to seek a divine spark that is common to all of humanity, insisting that we try to be what the Japanese call, “for each other.” […]
As nations and as people, we cannot choose the history that we inherit. We can choose what lessons to draw from it. We use those lessons to charter our own futures.
Obama is right that we should learn the lessons of history and refuse to engage in violent, petty tribalism that dismisses the humanity of people who are different from us. The problem is how poorly that squares with his own foreign policy record.
Elected as a “peace candidate,” he ignored the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan to intervene in Libya, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. While it must be granted that Obama inherited a difficult position in the Middle East, his expansion of the American military footprint into North Africa and the Sinai Peninsula — not to mention his escalation of drone warfare and callous dismissal of the civilian casualties it produced — can hardly be cast as mindfulness of the “divine spark that is common to all of humanity.”
In many ways, this speech encapsulates the frustrating contrast between Obama’s words and policies in matters of war and peace (and civil liberties, for that matter), which I have long deplored. He often talks such a good talk — his annual prayer breakfast talks are a prime example of this — and yet walks such a reckless, deadly walk.
As Obama prepares to leave office, his Pearl Harbor remarks serve to reiterate this sad mismatch. Had he governed as he spoke, I would be sad to see him go.