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the prize for not being dubya

bergens tidende, 11 october 2009

What do you call someone who expands the war in Afghanistan, insists that it is the right of the US government to abduct people from around the world and incarcerate them in a network of secret prisons, and thinks it acceptable to lock up foreign suspects indefinitely without trial? The answer, it seems, at least to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, depends on your name. If it’s George W Bush, you call him a warmonger. If it’s Barack H Obama, then you hail him as a great peacemaker.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama has had even his staunchest supporters scratching their heads in puzzlement. They should not have been surprised. Throughout its 108-year history, the Prize has often been won by figures who seem to have as much understanding of peace as former South African President Thabo Mbeki has of medical science.

In 1906 the prize went to another US president, Theodore Roosevelt, for helping negotiate the end to the Russo-Japanese war. Roosevelt’s attitude to war had already been made clear in his magnum opus, The Winning of the West, in which he claimed that ‘The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman.’ According to Roosevelt, ‘the rude fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized man under a debt to him. American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori – in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.’

In 1973, the prize was won by another American, the secretary of state Henry Kissinger, for his part in the negotiations to end the Vietnam War. Despite signing an agreement to ‘respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Vietnam’, Kissinger and President Richard Nixon continued funding the conflict for another two years, until finally forced to withdraw after the North Vietnamese army captured Saigon in 1975.

Six years earlier, Kissinger had masterminded the secret and illegal carpet-bombing of Laos and Cambodia, during which the US air force had dropped 540,000 tons of bombs, resulting in the deaths of between 150,000 and half a million civilians and paving the way for the murderous Pol Pot regime. The same year as he won the Peace Prize, Kissinger was implicated in the coup that brought down the democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, replacing him with a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. In the eyes of the Nobel Peace Committee, however, the US secretary of state remained the world’s leading peacemaker.

Barack Obama is clearly not another Henry Kissinger. He is not another George W Bush either. But not being George Bush is not a good reason for claiming the Peace Prize. It is difficult, though, to see why else he was nominated, let alone was successful.

According to the Prize Committee, Obama deserves the prize ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’. Committee head Thorbjoern Jagland dismissed criticism that, beyond crafting well-meaning phrases, Obama has not actually achieved anything, suggesting that ‘we would like to support what he is trying to achieve’. But what is he trying to achieve? The record is not encouraging.

Last November, as he introduced his new national security team, President-elect Obama observed they all ‘share the belief we have to maintain the strongest military on the planet’, adding that ‘We have to bring the full force of our power, not only military but diplomatic and political, to deal with the threats’ that America faced. George Bush would not have disagreed.

There is, in fact, far greater continuity between Bush’s foreign policy and that of Obama than many would like to believe. It was the Bush administration that began the policy of withdrawal from Iraq in order to throw more resources into Afghanistan. Obama, if anything, has been even more enthusiastic about escalating the Afghan conflict, pouring in more troops, increasing air strikes and authorizing attacks on targets in Pakistan. According to the UN, almost 900 Afghani civilians were killed in the first six months of the Obama administration. In May around 100 civilians died after American bombed a target in Farah province, the deadliest single US strike since 2001. Had George Bush still been in power, the international outcry would undoubtedly have been far greater.

Building a ‘better, freer world’, Obama wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs in 2007, ‘means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.’ In the nine months since taking office Obama’s administration has defended every one of those policies.

In February this year, five detainees at Guantanamo Bay filed a suit against Jappesen Dataplan Inc, a subsidiary of Boeing, for its alleged role in helping move terrorist suspects to third countries for detention, interrogation and possible torture – the policy of so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’. The Obama administration refused to release official documents relating to the case on the grounds of ‘state security’. Since then the White House has made clear that extraordinary rendition is a necessary tactic in the war on terror.

And so is indefinite detention without trial. On his first full day in office Obama announced that the Guantanamo Bay detention centre would be shut down. Many of those currently held in Cuba will, however, be transferred to other prisons such as Bagram airforce in Afghanistan. Using arguments first crafted by the Bush administration in defence of Guantanamo, US government lawyers told a court in September that Bagram detainees – many of whom had been captured not in Afghanistan but in countries such as Thailand and the UAE - had no legal right to challenge their imprisonment. Judge John Bates observed in response that Bagram suspects appeared to have ‘significantly less [rights] than the Guantanamo detainees’ and expressed his ‘concern that the Executive could move detainees physically beyond the reach of the Constitution and detain them indefinitely.’

Back in 1973 the Peace Prize was offered not just to Kissinger but also to the chief North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho. He turned it down on the grounds that his country was ‘still not at peace’. Somehow I cannot see Obama making the same judgement call.