President Barack Obama has been primarily criticized for winning the Nobel Peace Prize so early in his term that he hasn’t yet done anything to deserve it. Only a few commentators, including the president, seemed to sheepishly realize the irony of his receiving the prize shortly after escalating one war and while continuing to fight another. You would have thought that the escalation alone would have been enough to satisfy all of the warheads at home; but to stanch the domestic fallout from being associated with too much peace, Obama, when accepting the peace award, gave a speech defending war. Most conservatives, who usually never have much nice to say about Obama on any other issue, applauded the speech loudly.
That’s because war is what has defined conservatism since William F. Buckley, one of the first neoconservatives, declared in the mid-1950s that if the U.S. was going to defeat the evil communists, conservatives were going to have to accept a larger government. The modern neoconservative movement loves U.S. government meddling abroad and is soft on criticizing government intervention at home.
But other liberal warheads besides President Obama have won the Nobel Peace Prize, too. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican Progressive, won the prize but is one of the few American presidents who actually believed that war had positive effects on the human condition. Woodrow Wilson won it but is the man who ruined the entire 20th century by involving America unnecessarily in the First World War (the U.S. had traditionally stayed out of Europe’s wars) and thus inadvertently played a great role in bringing about the conditions for the second, more horrible installment of that conflict and the subsequent Cold War. Finally, Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser and secretary of state to the last liberal president before Obama – Richard Nixon – won the prize even though he and Nixon carpet-bombed the small country of Cambodia, not caring a thing about indiscriminately killing huge numbers of civilians.
But can’t Obama be let off the hook because his Afghan War is a continuation of George W. Bush’s war against the perpetrators of 9/11? No, if a peace prize is being given out, one would think it should be presented to someone who has promoted peace, not just bestowed on someone who is allegedly fighting a "just war." In reality, the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is counterproductive to bringing Osama bin Laden and other central al-Qaeda figures to justice. Instead of prosecuting a war of occupation to fight the Afghan Taliban and putting pressure on the Pakistani government to suppress militants – both of which drive the Taliban into the arms of al-Qaeda – the U.S. should astutely withdraw from Afghanistan and instead try to drive a wedge between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Obama is also likely to be a poor choice for the Peace Prize because of his nascent policy toward Iran. In a little-noticed, but astounding, speech, Robert Gates, Obama’s secretary of defense, pledged that if the Iranians did not cooperate in getting rid of their alleged nuclear weapons program, the U.S. would push for harsh economic sanctions, which he admitted would be designed to hurt the Iranian people to get them to pressure the Iranian government to begin playing ball on the nuclear issue. Although the sanctions would be unlikely to have the desired effect, because prohibitions on commerce provide incentives for Iranians and potential commercial partners to cheat massively and because Iranians across the political spectrum support Iran’s nuclear program, that is not the only problem with them.
If terrorism is defined as harming civilians to get them to pressure their government to make changes in policy, then such harsh and broad sanctions are a lesser form of terrorism. Although the means may be economic – instead of blowing up buildings or markets – intentionally harming the people of a poor nation commercially can also cause many deaths. Obama’s policy on Iran sanctions mirrors then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s defense of the grinding, comprehensive embargo against Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein in his box during the 1990s, when asked if it was worth it after a United Nations report estimated that a half million Iraqi children had died because of the sanctions. Bombs may kill civilians more spectacularly, but cutting off the necessities of life makes them just as dead.
To truly earn the Peace Prize, Obama would need to change course and withdraw rapidly from Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, and make sure any embargo on Iran stays focused on specialty items that can be used in making or delivering nuclear weapons.