Usual Iran Bashing
Yet, while Obama made an impassioned case for a diplomatic solution to the Iran-nuclear dispute -- and defended the details of the agreement -- he also drifted back into the typical propagandistic Iran bashing that has become de rigueur in Official Washington.
Obama salted his praise for diplomacy with the typical insults toward Iran, portraying it as some particularly aggressive force for evil in the Middle East, juxtaposed against the forces for good, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikdoms and Israel -- all of which have spread more violence and chaos in the Middle East than Iran.
In that sense, Obama's speech fell far short of the statement of universal principles on behalf of humanity that was the hallmark of Kennedy's speech on June 10, 1963, a declaration that was remarkable coming at a peak of the Cold War and almost unthinkable today amid the petty partisan rhetoric of American politicians. In contrast to Obama's cheap shots at Iran, Kennedy refrained from gratuitous Moscow bashing.
Instead, Kennedy outlined the need to collaborate with Soviet leaders to avert dangerous confrontations, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy also declared that it was wrong for America to seek world domination, and he asserted that U.S. foreign policy must be guided by a respect for the understandable interests of adversaries as well as allies. Kennedy said:
"What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time."
Standing Up to Cynics
Kennedy recognized that his appeal for this serious pursuit of peace would be dismissed by the cynics and the warmongers as unrealistic and even dangerous. But he was determined to change the frame of the foreign policy debate, away from the endless bravado of militarism:
"I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. "
"Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
And then, in arguably the most important words that he ever spoke, Kennedy said, "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
Kennedy followed up his AU speech with practical efforts to work with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to rein in dangers from nuclear weapons and to discuss other ways of reducing international tensions, initiatives that Khrushchev welcomed although many of the hopeful prospects were cut short by Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
Kennedy's AU oration was, in many ways, a follow-up to what turned out to be President Dwight Eisenhower's most famous speech, his farewell address of Jan. 17, 1961. That's when Eisenhower ominously warned that "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. ... We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."
Arguably no modern speeches by American presidents were as important as those two. Without the phony trumpets that often herald what are supposed to be "important" presidential addresses, Eisenhower's stark warning and Kennedy's humanistic appeal defined the challenges that Americans have faced in the more than half century since then.
Those two speeches, especially Eisenhower's phrase "military-industrial complex" and Kennedy's "we all inhabit this small planet," resonate to the present because they were rare moments when presidents spoke truthfully to the American people.
Nearly all later "famous" remarks by presidents were either phony self-aggrandizement (Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall" -- when the wall wasn't torn down until George H.W. Bush was president and wasn't torn down by Mikhail Gorbachev anyway but by the German people). Or they are unintentionally self-revealing (Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" or Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman.")
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