THE MAINSTREAM media has been nearly unrelenting in its condemnation of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forcing Senator Barack Obama to distance himself from someone he considered a mentor. But Obama's "Wright problem" reveals a largely ignored national problem: the narrowing of public debate to exclude the possibility of speaking truthfully about the US role in the world.
Wright's rhetoric and his inflated ego are doing serious damage to Obama's campaign. Wright seems now mainly interested in his own newfound celebrity. The media have been correct to point out his recent buffoonery, to denounce his view that the US government infected blacks with AIDS, and to dismiss his idolization of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, but it has inappropriately discredited everything he has said, including the nuggets of truth he has exposed and that are worth hearing, even from such a flawed messenger.
His insights have come with brutal bluntness: "The US is the No. 1 killer in the world." But the substance of this message is little different from the assessment offered by Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the Vietnam War: "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my government."
King went on to speak of a basic American "malady": that the United States would repeat catastrophic ventures like Vietnam until it changed its basic aim, wrapped in lofty ideals of spreading liberty, to dictate to the rest of the world. This is the beginning of real "peace talk," but today, in both political parties, there is only "war talk" that does not get to the root of the problem and offer solutions.
We need urgently to redraw the boundaries of respectable public debate. This is especially crucial for Obama. Even as he distances himself from Wright, his campaign is deeply bound up with changing the terms of debate.
Today, it is possible to be a respectable critic of the Iraq war, but one must judge the war's failures as "mistakes" or problems in "execution." One cannot reject - or even speak credibly of - the aim to dictate to the world.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has moved the boundaries of debate so far to the right that even the peace movement often calls Iraq a "mistake" rather than a sign of America seeking illegitimate dominance cloaked in idealism.
That leaves our mainstream conversation today full of different variants of war talk and no genuine peace talk.
The conservative version of war talk is to promote US global supremacy, enforced by unilateral military intervention when necessary, as a moral imperative in a "transcendental" war on terrorism. John McCain is running for president on conservative war talk.
The liberal version of war talk is to promote US global "leadership," enforced by multilateral institutions, partnerships, and greater reliance on soft power.
Obama has hinted at a new foreign policy vision but seeks a bigger military footprint in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton is even more aggressive, strongly focused on a bigger global US military force and the potential need to invade Iran.
Yet the US public may be hungering for a new peace talk after the Iraq debacle. A February 2007 Gallup poll asking about what role the United States should play in the world indicated that only 15 percent said "the leading role," a rejection of American global dominance. This hints that Obama could find a new path to peace talk that better aligns him with voters' values.
Without authentic peace talk, there can be no real movement toward peace. Obama's greatest skill is as a rhetorician, and in his recent speech on race, he proved that he could speak truthfully, in a new and unifying way, about this most charged American subject. In this same spirit, he will be a transformative leader and make a lasting contribution if he moves to resurrect the authentic peace talk of Martin Luther King Jr.
Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are authors of "Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good."