Since its inception in 1900, the Nobel Peace Prize has been one of the world’s most cherished awards. Given to individuals who have distinguished themselves in some significant way in the cause of peace, it has been bestowed on the likes of Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.
Among politicians and government leaders to have received it are Woodrow Wilson, Willy Brandt, Anwar Sadat, and Nelson Mandela.
In almost every instance, the winners have been selected for something they have accomplished (e.g. Mandela for his peaceful struggle against apartheid; Sadat for securing his country’s peace with Israel). In some, however, the award has recognized the ideas propounded by individuals, rather than the actual realization of those dreams.
Barack Obama, if he is worthy at all, falls into the latter category. Barely eight months into his presidency, Obama leads a nation that is still engaged in two wars, with one (Iraq) slowly winding down, while the other (Afghanistan) may actually escalate in the weeks and months ahead. He also has assumed responsibility for the drone attacks inside Pakistan that have killed innocent civilians (exact numbers depend on whom you ask, but no one would dispute that it is “more than a few”) and is continuing extraordinary renditions that might well constitute war crimes if unsubstantiated reports prove to be true.
His record on the subject of peace, therefore, is not the stuff to fill a résumé.
What Obama did bring to the selection committee, and from all reports, he was not seeking the recognition, was a tone of voice and an image of openness that is vastly different from the arrogance and militant defiance of his predecessor. That difference alone, when the individual we’re talking about is the leader of the most powerful military force in the world, may justify consideration by those who honor peace makers.
But speeches do not make the man, not when you are possessed of the power to destroy whole countries, if not the world. And policies that run afoul of those speeches do not create a consistent legacy, not when you speak of peace and practice war.
And so, while it is foolish, even mean-spirited, to criticize the president for winning the award, it is not at all improper to ask what he will do to deserve it, conceding, as even he presumably does, that to this point, he has done essentially nothing to merit the honor.
Obviously, any president who brokers a lasting peace in the Middle East would redeem Nobel recognition. Likewise, any president who could negotiate complete nuclear disarmament would more than qualify.
Those life-time dreams are not readily achievable, however, and do not warrant serious consideration as the road to Obama’s justification.
On the other hand, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the whole “war on terrorism” (however defined and whatever handle it is known by currently) might present a more realistic opportunity for greatness, in Peace Prize terms. And on those fronts, Mr. Obama may still be trying to find his way. That conclusion certainly seems apparent from the evidence at hand.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric of his campaign, this president has yet to order anything approaching a drawdown of military might in the three areas noted above. In Iraq, he is essentially following the withdrawal timetable embraced (albeit reluctantly) by President Bush. That war continues to represent a major incursion of American military power and presence in a land that never should have seen it and felt it in the first place.
Therefore, one noble step Mr. Obama could take would be to declare definitively that the justification for that war never existed, that its perpetration was a moral abomination, and that U.S. involvement in it is over. A complete withdrawal of all forces (not just “combat forces”) should then be announced on a timetable that recognizes only logistical requirements.
The Iraqi people would then be free of American influence, as they have every right to be, and would be able to choose their own destiny, be it civil war (as some fear) or peaceful reconciliation (as many hope) or something in between, as is most likely. Whatever the fate of Iraq, it should never have been invaded and occupied by Mr. Obama’s country, and he should honor the Nobel award by stating so and by acting on that statement.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama assumed office with the apparent plan to right what his predecessor had gotten wrong, to wit: to hunt down and bring to justice the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The problem with this plan is that what Mr. Bush failed to accomplish seven years earlier is probably no longer realistic or pertinent now.
To be specific, Osama bin Laden has moved, and his operation has morphed. Al Qaeda, while still very much a threat to U.S. security, is not the same organization it was in 2002, when Bush led an international coalition into war in Afghanistan. That coalition no longer exists, and bin Laden, if he is still leading al Qaeda, is almost certainly not operating out of the nether regions of Afghanistan.
The justification for a continued presence in that country, therefore, is uncertain at best. And Mr. Obama seems to acknowledge as much as he struggles to find a new one. In the meantime, Pakistan may be the more probable hotbed of anti-American Islamic fundamentalism, and it is not likely to invite a U.S. military presence, nor should it have one.
Obama should commit to a well-ordered and carefully-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. By leaving, he would allow that country to return to its own form of governance (one marked by warlords and tribal laws, rather than a western-style democracy that fit it about as poorly as a ten-gallon hat would fit Mr. Obama).
And finally, Mr. Obama ought to declare the war on terror (or whatever we’re calling it these days) done and over. Instead, he should seek dialogue with all who have grievances with his country and should find ways to show humility and understanding in addressing those grievances.
Men of peace do such things.