Award for promises

Print edition : November 06, 2009

DISBELIEF was the order of the day. At 6 a.m., the White House received a phone call from Oslo, Norway. Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Even the United States President admitted to surprise. He has only been in office for nine months. Most of his initiatives have not yet begun to germinate. It seemed premature, even to his fiercest supporters. His detractors were, of course, furious.

The Nobel Committees citation pointed not to any concrete achievement by Obama but to the new climate in international politics created by his short tenure in office. This is, of course, true. Over the course of his eight years in office, President George W. Bush sent his firepower hither and yon, either to invade countries in contravention of international law or to extend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) toward Russia, bringing tension once more to the heart of Eurasia. The U.S., the Nobel Committee pointed out, has now once more committed itself to multilateral diplomacy, which is to say, dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. NATO has been bridled, the United Nations has been given assurances, and Obama has pledged to move a climate change agenda through the U.S. legislature. All these details seem details. What has entranced the Nobel Committee is something more visceral that the world has been freed from a trauma by the salve of Obamas tentative moves away from Bushs extremism.

The prize, then, was not so much for Obamas actions alone as it was for a repudiation of the Bush years. Indeed, during the Bush era, from 2001 to 2008, the Nobel Peace Committee awarded its prize to those who stood for policies that were at variance with the Bush doctrine. There were the awards to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (2002) and former Vice-President Al Gore (in 2007), both Democrats, and both strong critics of the war on Iraq and the general tenor of the Bush presidency. Bushs administration had pilloried the United Nations. His representative to the U.N., John Bolton, once said: If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 storeys, it wouldnt make a bit of difference. So, the Nobel Committee rebuked Bush in its own small way, giving its prize to the U.N. and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2001), to the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and Martti Ahtisaari, one of the U.N.s most distinguished diplomats (2008). The Bush team snubbed climate change, so the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore (2007) as well as Wangari Maathai (2004) took home the prize.

By Norse code, the Peace Prize Committee tried to honour Alfred Nobels will, in which he had written that the prize had to go to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. Obama has done none of these concrete things, but he has at least set in motion a different atmosphere around international relations. It is this that Cubas Fidel Castro recognised, and for which he said that this Nobel is more than a prize for the U.S. President, but it is criticism of the genocidal policies that have been followed by more than a few Presidents of that country. It was also the view of the White House, whose press attache, P.J. Crowley said, We think that this gives us a sense of momentum when the United States has accolades tossed its way rather than shoes.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA greets troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad on April 7. The U.S. already has a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, which it has neglected to follow.-JIM YOUNG/REUTERS

The sad irony of the prize is that it came during the week when Obamas War Cabinet sat in the White House, deliberating over policy in Afghanistan. Even as news of the prize broke, three car bombs exploded in Iraqs Ramadi, killing 19 people, and a suicide bombing in Pakistans Shangla killed 41. Meanwhile, in Islamabad, militants attacked the General Headquarters, which had later to be retaken by Pakistans Army.

The detritus of the Bush imperial adventures are still in full throttle. If these reminders were insufficient, the Pentagon announced a $52 million contract to hurry along its bunker buster bomb, a 15-tonne massive ordnance penetrator that carries 5,300 pounds of explosives and can tear through reinforced concrete. If the U.S. strikes a nuclear site in Iran or North Korea, the air force would use these bombs, launched from B-2 bombers. When asked about these targets, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said: I dont think anybody can divine potential targets. This is just the capability that we think is necessary given the world we live in.

Predator drones continue to fire into Pakistan, with the U.S. now threatening to send them into action in Baluchistan (where they believe the Taliban leader Mullah Omar lives). Little on the war front seems to have changed. There is not one peace activist in the core foreign policy team (Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke are equal to the personality of General Stanley McChrystal, who ran the assassination squad for U.S. special forces). There is talk of shifts in strategy to win the war, rather than to find a way to disengage from conflicts that already appear intractable and that seem not to be helped by an increase in U.S. firepower.

The dogged Senator Russ Feingold, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested soon after the Nobel Prize was announced that the White House should set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Rather than doubling down on a strategy with objectives that could be unachievable, he said, we should announce a flexible timetable to draw down our forces from Afghanistan. A timetable would defuse the perception that we are occupying that country, and help ensure that our presence does not fuel militancy and instability in the region. The U.S. already has a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, which it has neglected to follow. It has already built a massive embassy-base in Baghdad that will allow it a permanent presence in that country. Such an embassy-base is also to be built not far from Islamabads General Headquarters on 14 acres of prime real estate.

Kabul too will house such an embassy-base. War and the accoutrements of war are essential to U.S. power, and the withdrawal called for by even the best of the Democrats is simply to return U.S. power to its normal condition. No longer the extremist, now back to the condition of normal empire. The Nobel Prize was for that, for Obamas attempt to return the world to the normalcy of U.S. hegemony.

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