Obama at a Crossroads

It has been fashionable to denounce the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to American President Barack Obama as a travesty.  On a certain level, that judgment is undeniably correct as Obama has proven himself to be a master of empty rhetoric coupled with only minimal substance in the international arena.  On Obama’s watch the United States has only marginally reduced its presence in Iraq, has increased the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, has stepped up drone attacks in Pakistan, and has indicated its willingness to "go after terrorists" wherever they are through commando-style attacks like the one carried out in Somalia last month.  This affirmation of the president’s hawkish inclinations comes in spite of the fact that it can be reasonably argued that Obama won the presidency in the first place due to the antiwar vote. 

The Nobel committee indicated that the choice of Obama was due to his having changed the tone of American interaction with the rest of the world, a clear and well-deserved slap at George W. Bush and his cronies.  But it remains to be seen whether tone can be turned into substance and the signs are not good.  Last week, Obama was silent when Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced that there can be no peace agreement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.  On Tuesday reports that the increase in soldiers in Afghanistan has actually been almost twice the numbers the White House approved early in the year because large numbers of support troops have been included and not counted.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is reportedly globetrotting building up support for harsh sanctions on Iran.

A second issue that apparently propelled Obama to the prize was his effort to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons, an area in which there has also been some sound and fury but little actual action.  To be sure, Obama has supported an international nuclear test ban treaty which would include sanctions directed against those countries that actually test nuclear weapons. The treaty would make it more difficult to develop weapons that are actually usable, but the US Senate has yet to approve the agreement and significant players like India, China, and Pakistan appear reluctant to participate.

On the issue of proliferation the Nobel committee might also have credited Obama’s apparent willingness to engage in negotiations regarding a possible Iranian nuclear program and the weapons already believed to be in the hands of North Korea.  But they should also have considered how he did grave damage to the Non-Proliferation regime through his green light to across-the-board technology sharing with the Indian nuclear program, which excludes regulation of New Delhi’s military inventory.    And there is also the troubling report of his secret agreement with Israel that ignores the estimated 200 nuclear warheads in the hands of Tel Aviv, allowing it to have a monopoly on such weapons in the Middle East.  Clearly we are seeing the typical Washington double standard.  Bad guys will not be allowed to have a nuclear deterrent or even the right to enrich uranium while regimes the White House regards favorably will be judged by a completely different standard, undermining any suggestion that the Obama Administration might be behaving altruistically.  As the NPT regime was originally established to create a non-political standard whereby all nations would be able to have the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes within a regulated framework, the Obama de facto acceptance that all are not equally entitled threatens the overall integrity of the system and will lead to more countries opting out to protect their own parochial interests.

Some have suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize will serve as a political anvil tied around Obama’s ankle domestically, where the president is already being criticized by the right as an appeaser and by the left as celebrity politician who is being rewarded "prematurely" for all the wrong reasons.  Others see the award as an enabler, possibly permitting Obama to seize the high ground and carry out policies that would otherwise be unimaginable. But the many interpretations of what the prize might mean are little more than speculation at this point.  To those who see the possibility for radical change it should be pointed out that all foreign policy is really a reflection of domestic policy. Changing course in the Middle East and Central Asia would require support from various domestic constituencies, unlikely to be forthcoming.

But it might be possible to envision a positive outcome in terms of what the award might do to the president’s own self regard.  Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The level of violence in Iraq is increasing but, as US troops are now disengaged from the cities, it does not normally involve Americans.  An understanding has been reached to have nearly all of the current 130,000 US troops leave the country by 2011, though there is some wiggle room in the agreement and it is possible that the deadline will not be met if violence and instability continue to increase.  Be that as it may, there is no road back towards greater engagement in Iraq.  There is no possibility, politically speaking, that Obama will increase troop levels even if the country implodes, so it is reasonable to assume that United States forces will actually leave Iraq within the next two years, a timetable that Obama cannot radically alter.

In Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, Obama’s view of the conflict is reported to be very much in play even though he has backed himself into a corner rhetorically speaking by referring to the fighting as a "war of necessity."  As the president has already ruled out withdrawal or a reduction in forces, the options he is looking at range from the status quo to a huge increase of 60,000 soldiers, virtually doubling the US commitment at a time when Washington’s European allies are looking for a way out.   What is particularly disturbing about Obama’s deliberative process is that he does not consult with anyone who was opposed to the Iraq and Afghan conflicts from the beginning, narrowing his options to those advocated by the liberal interventionist and nation building wing of his own party, a perspective that differs little from that of the Republicans.  Divergent views are unwelcome.  The Israeli lobby’s torpedoing of Charles Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council in February 2009 eliminated a possibly independent voice over fear that he might chart a reality-based course in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As all the choices The White House is likely to consider are bad, those of us in the antiwar community should perhaps ponder whether the status quo is a better outcome than a new surge, which would undoubtedly kill even more Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis.  Will the Nobel Prize nudge Obama towards deciding against more soldiers?  If it influences his thinking in that way it would be a positive step, even though it remains a bad option that hardly puts an end to the imperial venture in central Asia.

By the same process, Peace Nobel Laureate Obama might likewise be less inclined to pull the trigger on Iran and more willing to let negotiations play out against the wishes of a bloodthirsty congress and media, not to mention his own State Department.  If the Nobel Prize is even marginally instrumental in slowing the rush towards a new war, it would have to be regarded in positive terms.

Finally, I would note the old "my enemy’s enemy" axiom.  The familiar voices from among the neocons and the Israeli lobby have been most vocal in decrying Obama as an "appeaser" peacemaker, possibly because they fear that the award might impel him to try that much harder to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together.  There is increasing buzz in Washington about the viability of imposing a settlement on Israel-Palestine which would create a Palestinian state and a security-guaranteed Israel along the lines of the pre-1967 borders.  Such a solution, with compensation for the Palestinians who were dispossessed rather than a right of return, would likely have the support of the European Union, Russia, and leading Arab states.  Israel has indicated clearly that it would resist such an outcome because it would force it to give up its settlements and provide Palestinian access to Jerusalem, which makes the United States the key player as it is the only government that can seriously pressure Tel Aviv.  Is it a fantasy to even consider such a solution given that Congress and the media would be aligned against the president?  Perhaps, but Nobel Laureate Obama just might think it is worth one more try.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.