Among many remarkable historical, social and religious references in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last week, President Obama made two references to Thomas Jefferson, one of the most intellectual of our American presidents. Obama mentioned the fact that the first Muslim member of Congress Keith Ellison took his oath of office with a Koran that was once in Jefferson’s personal library.
The second mention of Jefferson came in Obama’s passage on Iraq, in which he carefully distinguished the American presence in Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda versus the American decision to invade Iraq. He said: “Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.” “
Jefferson wrote that sentence in one of his many letters to his friend and Philadelphia Merchant Thomas Leiper, and the passage was in reference to the ongoing tension betweeen the young United States and England, and Jefferson’s vision for the future leading role that this nation would play in world affairs. More than 200 years ago, the founders of this nation were deeply concerned about — and argued incessantly over — the need for war versus adopting tactics of negotiation and persuasion to safeguard Americna interests. I’ve just finished watching the marvelous HBO series “John Adams” based on David McCullough’s bestseller, and the lifelong dialogues among Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Washington and the other protagonists of that era certainly reveal that the human struggle for peace and national quest for security and respect transcend time and personality and borders.
Obama’s speech places his governing philosophy squarely in that American tradition of assuming power without necessarily always showing force. The “wisdom” of which Jefferson write, which Obama clearly desires to manifest, certainly echoes the global leadership of other presidents who thought carefully and acted prudently on the question of waging war.
The speech was important in that it called other nations to emulate that Jeffersonian call to embrace that kind of wisdom that should lead powerful nations to think twice about brute force — realizing that force cannot be completely abandoned when necessary, but using force prudentially rather than as a preferred tactic.
As I read Obama’s speech, I also found myself wondering if any president of the United States has spent so much time directly addressing the issues of religious belief that influence and shape so much of the world’s culture, social constructs, family customs and domestic as well as international conflicts. In the last few weeks, he has given a major address at the University of Notre Dame on the abortion issue, and throughout his trip to the Middle East and Europe, he addressed religion, culture and governance at length on many stops.
Not everyone was happy with what he had to say on these various occasions. Much commentary can be found on the Internet decrying his Notre Dame speech, or what he said in Cairo about the Palestinian settlements and Israeli rights, or the comment quoted above about Iraq. Agreement is not something any leader expects, but what’s important for effective leadership is the willingness to establish the framework for the discussion. The president, himself, acknowledged that no speech can end the generations of violence in the Middle East, just as no speech or convening of different advocates will settle the abortion controversy in this nation. Acknowledging the differences of opinion, respecting the histories and traditions of the people affected, and encouraging continuing dialogue are all part of the exercise of wisdom that should be the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of of great nation.