To borrow from Winston Churchill’s quip about Russia, the mind of Barack Obama is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
Here we have an American President visiting Vietnam and announcing that he will drop a ban on selling military hardware, brushing off reminders of that country’s notorious human rights abuses like dandruff.
And on the same trip, without missing a beat, he visits Japan to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial where he delivers a thoughtful speech about nuclear disarmament and the horrors of war.
To tell the truth, it was a remarkable performance. He began by asking his listeners to ponder the lessons of what happened when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city at 8.16am on August 6, 1945.
Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.
Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.
Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
This is Mr Obama’s signature eloquence. He paints a vivid picture; he asks hard questions; he probes consciences like a Christian preacher.
Those six opening sentences hinted at an apology for Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. And in fact, in the days before the visit, rumours flew around the internet that the American President was going to issue an apology. But the rumours were wrong. The real Barack Obama is not a man who opens himself to accusations of weakness by making apologies. He wears a velvet glove but there is always an iron fist.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2009, whose themes and structure are surprisingly similar to the speech at Hiroshima. Like a professor, he began with a sketch of just war theory; but like an American president, he ended it with a robust defence of America’s right to use force whenever and wherever it sees fit, without consulting anyone.
Similarly, Obama apologised for nothing at Hiroshima, however ingratiating his words may have seemed to the Japanese.
After listening to his speeches for eight years, I have concluded that his ability to sound conciliatory, humane and understanding while conceding nothing at all is the most characteristic feature of Obama’s rhetoric.
How does he do it?
1. He expresses compassion for humble people battered by forces beyond their control.
“That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent –- we can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here seventy-one years ago. Those who died -– they are like us.”
2. He stands on Olympus to describe the arc of history in which nations are tempest-tossed by inexplicable evil.
“Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction; how the very spark that marks us as a species — our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”
3. He declares that all religions, ideologies and nations share in the guilt.
“Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill. Nations arise, telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats, but those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.
Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds; to cure disease and understand the cosmos. But those same discoveries can be turned into ever-more efficient killing machines.
4. He calls for a moral renewal or revolution like a Christian preacher:
Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.
5. He boldly echoes the rhetoric of pro-life campaigners:
The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious; the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family -– that is the story that we all must tell.
These techniques are present in nearly all of Obama’s great speeches – and this was a great speech. But there are two elements missing.
The first is a commitment to consistency. In the end, despite his oratorical gifts, Barack Obama is just another politician, a spinmeister. Left out of his address in Hiroshima is his record on drone strikes, for instance, a “precision” technology which has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Left out, too, is his strong support for abortion. So much for “the irreducible worth of every person”. It’s no wonder that he could sell both weapons and disarmament in the same trip.
The second is the lack of an over-arching moral philosophy. Obama’s rhetorical master is the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. Smooth words about morality come easily to him, but it’s hard to know what makes right and wrong. It’s not religion; it’s not evolution; it’s not tradition. Is it ultimately just expedience, gussied up with rhetorical flim-flam?
If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” Obama has passed the test. But it takes more than intelligence to be a great leader; it takes sincerity.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.