Alfred Nobel intended his peace prize to go to those most responsible for creating "fraternity between nations," and the "reduction of standing armies." Yet a brief look at Obama's accomplishments since shows that the further we move from 2009, the further he turns from this legacy

Three years ago this month, the Nobel committee awarded its vaunted Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama. While many dubious names appear on the prize’s long list of winners, this decision was met with near-universal approval at the time.

The committee cited Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, his vision of a nuclear-free world, and his commitment to multilateralism. “Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened,” the committee opined hopefully. With few concrete achievements to point to, critics at the time accused Obama of winning simply for his global celebrity. His actions since should put critics at ease, for when it comes to these issues Obama has not rested on his laurels. In fact, he has moved aggressively in the opposite direction.

One of Obama’s first actions as president, only eight months before receiving the prize, was to grant immunity to all those involved in Bush-era ‘enhanced interrogation’. Striving for unity, Obama ensured no torturers, neither low-level grunts nor high-level policy-makers, would be held to account. ‘War on terror’ excesses continue to be shielded. This August, the Obama administration closed without charges the investigations of two detainee deaths at Guantanamo.  

At the same time, the Obama administration has vigorously pursued whistle blowers. The 1917 Espionage Act has been used to prosecute more legitimate leaks under Obama than its use by all previous administrations combined. Thomas Drake, who leaked details about the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping in 2007, was financially ruined by the legal fees he racked up defending himself from the government’s charges (charges that were later dropped). Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks leaker, faces a possible death sentence and was held in solitary confinement without charges for 11 months, a form of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” according to the UN special rapporteur on torture.  

The Obama administration’s Middle East policies have been no more peaceful. While drawing down American involvement in Iraq, the US remains mired in seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan, where yearly civilian casualties peaked at 3000 last year. Obama has also expanded the ‘war on terror’ by stepping up America’s drone program. Started under Bush, Obama has enthusiastically adopted these remote killing machines, bombing both Pakistan and Yemen, and thus feeding the fires of extremism in both. Hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed. Of course, these estimates are likely to be distorted as the Obama administration insists on counting “all military-age males in a strike zone” as militants.

Despite his early rhetoric about “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims”, Obama’s legacy in the Arab world is ambiguous at best. Much has been made of Obama’s intervention in Libya which helped topple Gaddafi. Yet a year on that country teeters on the brink of the kind of instability which characterised Iraq in its worst days. Meanwhile in Egypt, Obama loyally supported dictator Hosni Mubarak until it was all but clear he would be deposed. Likewise, in the midst of the protests in Bahrain, the US continued selling arms to the Bahraini government, which the regime would turn against its own people. Finally, Obama refuses to rule out the possibility of war with Iran – in fact, the US has already been waging cyber-warfare against Iran with the Stuxnet virus. 

Under Obama, America has also continued the kind of lawless behaviour once denounced as ‘cowboy diplomacy’. It has been revealed that Obama has compiled a secret ‘kill list’ of wanted terrorists, to be dispatched by drone. One of the names crossed off this list, Anwar al-Awlaki, was an American citizen; his 16-year old son was killed two weeks later. Moreover, American liberals now celebrate their President’s decision to defy Pakistan’s national sovereignty and order the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden. By contrast in Europe, as bin Laden’s corpse lay in the ocean, equally-unarmed war criminal Ratko Mladic, whose crimes were indisputably greater than any American-assassinated terrorist, was arrested and put on trial.  

All of this should not be surprising considering Obama used his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to make the case for war. Acknowledging the irony of receiving the prize while presiding as commander-in-chief of two wars, Obama doubled down. He affirmed the importance of war in ensuring peace, told the audience that “negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms,” and reserved the right to act unilaterally against threats to America. 

While Nobel Peace Prizes tend to be divvied out to warmongers and mass murderers with alarming frequency, it is generally given as a way of rewarding tentative, peaceful gestures by such men, thus encouraging such behaviour. President Obama is surely the only case in history where the awarding of the Peace Prize has encouraged its recipient to be less peaceful.

This is great news for Democrats, who have long battled accusations of being soft on national security. But for anyone who had hoped the policies of the Bush administration were an aberration, a bout of temporary national insanity, Obama’s post-prize record should no longer inspire the same kind of euphoria and optimism that led him to receive it in the first place. 

Comments (5)

by Graeme Edgeler on October 17, 2012
Graeme Edgeler

Three years ago this month, the Nobel committee awarded its vaunted Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama. While many dubious names appear on the prize’s long list of winners, this decision was met with near-universal approval at the time.

No it was not.

Bradley Manning ... was held in solitary confinement without charges for 11 months...

Bradley Manning was arrested in May 2010. Charges were laid in July 2010.

by Andrew Geddis on October 17, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"Much has been made of Obama’s intervention in Libya which helped topple Gaddafi. Yet a year on that country teeters on the brink of the kind of instability which characterised Iraq in its worst days. Meanwhile in Egypt, Obama loyally supported dictator Hosni Mubarak until it was all but clear he would be deposed."

This confuses me. Is Obama bad for siding too quickly with the opposition to Gaddafi  (thus helping to create an unstable power vacuum at the national level in Libya), or is he bad for sticking with Mubarak for too long (out of fears of the resultant unstable power vacuum should he fall)? Surely both complaints can't be valid, can they?

by Branko Marcetic on October 19, 2012
Branko Marcetic

In answer to Graeme’s comment, the reaction to Obama’s Nobel win was on the whole extremely positive. Figures like Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, along with many other world leaders, praised the decision. This isn’t to say there weren’t sceptics at the time (and some human rights groups and campaigners were definitely cautious and/or sceptical), and I clearly didn’t mean this was total consensus. As I noted a paragraph later, Obama had his critics who felt he was undeserving. But the mainly positive reaction to the award was a reflection of the general global optimism and hope that the US had turned a corner in its policies which Obama’s election inspired. As I hope the rest of what I’ve written shows, Obama hasn’t lived up that promise.

As for Manning, you’re absolutely right that he wasn’t held without charges, and I apologise for that slip-up – rather, he has been held without trial. This is just as shocking. By the time of Manning’s trial next February, he will have been in custody without trial for a whopping 983 days, despite the US military’s rule of a 120-day space between charges and trial. But the key point here is that Manning was being punished, severely, for a crime he hadn’t (and still hasn’t) been found guilty of. Justice has moved slowly and poorly for Manning.

In reply to Andrew, my point about Gaddafi and Mubarak is definitely clunkily stated and I’ll clarify it here. Obama’s intervention in Libya was held up as a positive example of (albeit limited) military intervention – the fact that US actions helped oust Gaddafi from power showed the potential for American military might to secure peace. But the power vacuum that’s left behind (not to mention the atrocities committed by the Libyan rebels) shows that, far from securing peace, if anything this action has bred more chaos and instability. This was a superficial victory for the US, let alone for 'peace' by any definition. 

As for Mubarak, I meant to contrast the praise heaped on Obama for standing up to the cartoonish, reviled Gaddafi to the administration’s support for Mubarak to the very end. I wasn’t suggesting that Obama should have intervened militarily in Egypt as he did in Libya – but the Obama administration not only refused to condemn Mubarak or call for him to step down, but was still providing Egypt with military aid while it gunned down its own people. One could surely have done the reverse of both of these without creating anarchy in Egypt. The very least the administration could have done was withdraw its moral support from a murderous regime.

The difference is, while there is a long history of enmity between Gaddafi and the US, the equally-brutal Mubarak was a steadfast American ally in the Middle East – their son of a bitch, to paraphrase a famous line. 

by Serum on October 19, 2012
Serum

 

It would be beneficial to point out the subtle support by the U.S. for Mubarak since Jan. 2011 - on one hand the support shown by the U.S. State Department and on the other hand by the White House administration.

"After the demonstrations in Egypt began In January 2011 the U.S. State Department, with the approval of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocated a policy in line with traditional U.S. strategy. They would work with the military to institute reforms and more freedom while jettisoning the aged, ineffective President Husni Mubarak. But they opposed the dismantling of the regime.

 The White House rejected that approach and  publicly declared its desire for Egypt's fundamental transformation. Anyone who knew Egypt should have and could have predicted this meant Islamist dominance. Yet the administration rejected the idea that this might happen. Indeed, without being asked, Obama publicly stated that he had no problem with a Muslim Brotherhood government taking power. Obama deliberately didn't consult with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia because he didn't want to hear their warnings about the risks he was taking and their opposition to what he was doing. He had already decided that a Brotherhood regime would be his preferred outcome.  By such actions, Obama conveyed to the military that it could not expect U.S. support and made it impossible for the generals to try to retain control over events. Indeed, in the following months, U.S. policy under Obama’s direction constantly criticized the military and called for a quick transition."
by Kawaii Gardiner on October 24, 2012
Kawaii Gardiner

While many dubious names appear on the prize’s long list of winners, this decision was met with near-universal approval at the time.

Who did? Most people I knew, even those who voted for Obama thought it was ridiculous and even more so when you consider who was also in the running such as  Irena Sendler who saved 3,000 babies from being exterminated. It seems that Europeans were more interested in a 'screw you' to the former administration than actually handing out rewards for genuine displays of achieving peace.

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