by Joshua H. Liberatore
Watching POTUS express his surprise this morning at the Nobel Committee’s decision to award him with this year’s high honor for peace, one could almost sense the acute discomfort. As we are continually reminded in the phrases of politicians – varied in tone and style, but unanimous in theme – we are “a nation at war.” His personal decency and tolerant language aside, POTUS formally leads the armies of that nation, and thus, is directly associated with their actions, good and bad. And POTUS knows it. But now he has to trot to Oslo next month to accept the biggest – though not necessarily the most respected – peace prize in the world, whose last sitting U.S. president recipient was Woodrow Wilson, celebrated architect of the Allied victory in World War I and creator of the League of Nations, the failed but generative prototype of the United Nations. Big shoes to fill, POTUS’s star power notwithstanding?
And even as we strive to seek a world in which conflicts are resolved peacefully and prosperity is widely shared, we have to confront the world as we know it today. I am the Commander in Chief of a country that’s responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies. I’m also aware that we are dealing with the impact of a global economic crisis that has left millions of Americans looking for work. These are concerns that I confront every day on behalf of the American people. (October 9, 2009)
Much noise has already been made today about the appropriateness of POTUS’s receiving the award, whether or not his achievements warrant it, whether or not he deserves such a formal accolade this early in his presidency, and I’m loath to add more than a few simple reactions. One particularly silly op-ed in Time claimed that “many Americans are longing for a President who is more bully, less pulpit.” On the contrary, from the results of recent polls, concerning America’s continued entanglement in Afghanistan, for example, many Americans – 60-plus percent of them – appear to be longing for an America that is less bully. Period. The status of the pulpit is beside the point.
Though the war in Iraq is all but absent from our daily headlines and talking points, its stepsister in the craggy nooks of Central Asia, officially eight years old this week, is bristling anew with every fresh attack from “insurgents” (insurgents in their own country?) and every new response from the U.S.-led NATO coalition. POTUS has spent the last two weeks bunkering down with his top advisers in the Situation Room in a series of three-hour closed-press jam sessions riffing on the theme betokened by Lenin’s old propaganda tract “What is to be Done?” The much-awaited answer may be anything from a new “surge” of troops dispatched to Afghanistan (the top U.S. commander on the ground, Stanley McChrystal, wants as many as 40,000) or a graduated repositioning of resources away from conventional search-and-destroy sorties toward a more multidisciplinary counterterrorism strategy. Peace, however, does not appear imminent.
Lucky for POTUS, candor and humility guide him to interpret the award in context, as a clear indicator (and not-so-subtle injunction) from the civilized nations of what is expected of his leadership in the broad strokes. POTUS articulated the symbolism thus:
To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace. But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build, a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement, it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. (October 9, 2009)
If peace is interpreted as a vague aspiration and not a measurable fact, we’re in for a continued rough ride in Afghanistan. Good intentions go out the window, quite literally, when American-made bombs are dropping from the skies. And they don’t even have to be bombs. In late June, a girl in Helmand province was killed by a defective canister distributing NATO-effort propaganda routinely dropped by helicopter into dangerous regions. How safe must Americans feel to justify this long and deadly adventure?
We went into Afghanistan not because we were interested in entering that country or positioning ourselves regionally, but because Al Qaida killed 3,000-plus Americans and vowed to continue trying to kill Americans. And so my overriding goal is to dismantle the Al Qaida network, to destroy their capacity to inflict harm, not just on us, but people of all faiths and all nationalities all around the world, and that is our overriding focus. (September 25, 2009).
Reputedly, POTUS’s top advisers are pretty well divided on how best to meet that noble goal. Our chief diplomat, the warlike Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, agrees with McChrystal and is happy to surge the number of American boots on the ground, even if that means increased casualties. Vice President Joe Biden advocates for less troop involvement, more reliance on the Predator drones that target militants in rugged borderlands and often kill civilians in the process. Looking toward his second quick trip to Scandinavia this fall, POTUS must consider all his options in Afghanistan and hope against hope that whatever strategy he arrives at doesn’t make a mockery out of the award he will receive (in fairness, one that Henry Kissinger also received) on December 10th. And perhaps he should donate the one-million-dollar prize money to Doctors without Borders (1999 recipient), or Amnesty International (1977), or better yet, the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917, 1944, 1963), and channel some of those good intentions and hopeful rhetoric about the world that “all Americans want to build” directly to the people and places suffering under the weight of American idealism.