Eyes on the prize: Obama's post-Nobel record

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.