Joining a rogues’ gallery

Barack Obama is presiding over an escalation of military action in Afghanistan. Despite that, he is a hero for the liberal bourgeoisie, writes James Turley

Fairly soon after Barack Obama’s victory in last year’s presidential elections, there appeared an amusing little website called Bad Paintings of Barack Obama,1 which randomly flashes up canvasses of dubious merit - a few paranoiac and hostile, the vast majority rapturously enthusiastic - all featuring the charismatic president.

Last week, one could be forgiven for thinking that this glut of kitsch fantasy art had somehow bled into reality, Who framed Roger Rabbit?-style. Obama - commander in chief, lest we forget, of a military presently engaged in a bloody and apparently endless war in Afghanistan, with whom the buck stops over unmanned drone killings, election-rigging and incursions into Pakistan - is the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

It would be one thing, of course, if Obama had made serious efforts to end, or even scale down, America’s involvement in Afghanistan - but the reverse, of course, is true: he went to the polls with the message that Iraq was “the wrong war”, whereas Afghanistan was winnable and should indeed be won. Such a view was briefly fashionable, as the American and British militaries began to withdraw from Iraq, with attention focused on the Afghan disaster instead. Now, it is clear that optimism over Afghanistan was a fantasy - but it is a fantasy that has left Obama committed to scaling up America’s commitment in that battered country.

The ostensible reason for the award, unsurprisingly, is unconnected with the bloodbath that renders it in any case farcical - Obama is to be rewarded for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Those watching the president closely as he wrangled somewhat feebly over the content of health policy and attempted to manage an international recession in the interests of finance capital might ask themselves, ‘Exactly what extraordinary efforts are these?’

Well, let us turn to the Nobel committee for an answer: “Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”2

Inasmuch as this represents a soup of stale platitudes, it is almost appropriate - after all, if there is one thing Obama is not short of, it is uplifting banalities. Exactly what is this “more constructive role” over climate change? In what sense can somebody happy to maintain an enormous nuclear arsenal be commended for his commitment to disarmament? At least he is the first president to tout “democracy and human rights” since ... well, the last president (admittedly he is a little more rhetorically convincing on the issue).

The icing on the comedy cake is, of course, the timing. Obama has been in office for about nine months - and they have not been particularly easy. His gifts as a speaker, for projecting sincerity and inspiring devotion among millions, cannot be doubted. But that was about the only thing that could not be doubted at the time nominations closed on February 1 - a whopping 12 days after Obama was sworn in.

Who are the bright sparks behind this decision? Ultimately, the blame rests with the Scandinavian establishment - the peace prize portfolio is the responsibility of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (all the other prizes are awarded by Swedish bodies), which is selected by the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. As is customary, the make-up of the five-strong committee reflects the make-up of the Storting - this year, that means two members of the Labour Party and one each from the Socialist Left, Progress and Conservative parties. That is supposedly a fairly broad spectrum of opinion, from the former ‘official communists’ of the Socialist Left to the populist Thatcherites of Progress - yet apparently the decision was unanimous.

The peace prize was established in 1901, along with all the other Nobel prizes (barring the semi-detached economics award, founded in 1969 by the Swedish central bank). Alfred Nobel had been one of Sweden’s most prominent scientists and inventors - he is most celebrated for his invention of dynamite. The military applications of his invention did not escape notice at the time, and Nobel appears to have been spurred to found the prizes by the erroneous publication of a scathing obituary in a French newspaper years before his death. Nobel was a pacifist, and by the end of his life an extraordinarily wealthy one; his will designated his fortune to be used annually to reward “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. An idealistic internationalist, Nobel was wise enough to specify that “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not”.3

A Nobel prize in the sciences has become undoubtedly the most prominent and prestigious honour in their respective fields, and the decisions are largely uncontroversial, since verified discoveries in the natural sciences for the most part take place ‘behind the back’ of politics, as it were. No such immunity is available to the peace prize, however; its purview is so ill-defined that almost anyone who has made a political splash in the international arena is up for it. On several occasions, organisations have won rather than individuals (most recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the green-themed 2007 award with Al Gore).

Narrowing the field of prominent international statesmen and NGOs is a fishy business - and to a large extent dictated by the covert political priorities of the imperialist order, with a modicum of Scandinavian social democratic ‘critical distance’, of course. Obama is “humbled”, according to his acceptance speech, to share the prize with many of his icons - one wonders if he has in mind Henry Kissinger, who was honoured in 1973 for concluding the Paris peace accords over the Vietnam war. He was supposed to share it with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho, but the latter turned it down: there was, he said, still no peace in his country.

He would have been within his rights to object simply to sharing any award with Kissinger. Taken on as an advisor to Richard Nixon and a legendarily cynical icon of cold war Realpolitik, Kissinger masterminded the ruthless bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam conflict, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. He oversaw US support for brutal military coups, most infamously the overthrow of Chilean socialist Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet. Those two atrocities were accomplished or well underway by the time Kissinger became a Nobel laureate - and he has repeatedly advised US governments since on its shadier activities, most recently turning up in the George W Bush kitchen cabinet in the early days of the Iraq war.

Kissinger is only the most foul of a rogues’ gallery of Nobel peace laureates that includes Menachem Begin (former leader of the quasi-fascist Irgun Zionist militia, and later the first Likud prime minister of Israel), the last apartheid president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, and many other dubious figures.

And now Obama. Interestingly, however, this is not simply a piece of Atlanticist fawning. The timing of the award has been interpreted by some as a calculated snub to the outgoing US administration.4 There is some background to this, as well; in 2002, the grateful recipient was former US president Jimmy Carter, whose human rights offensive during his bungled tenure has blossomed into a life-long quest.

Though he can hardly be described as an anti-imperialist, the fact that a ‘progressive’ American political grandee should be awarded at a time when the US, under George W Bush, was very much on a war footing and clamping down on domestic dissent, raised a few questions. Gunnar Berge, head of the committee that year, confirmed suspicions: “With the position Carter has taken on [the coming war with Iraq], it can and must also be seen as criticism of the line the current US administration has taken …”5

So is this a ‘reward’ for Americans choosing to come in from the cold and embrace ‘multilateralism’, ‘peace’ and ‘human rights’, with Obama their gleaming-toothed avatar? Or is it simply a delayed Scandinavian ripple of the mass hysteria that greeted his election, nearly a year ago? In truth, it barely matters; it is difficult to decide which reflects more badly on the prize. Obama has three years to go, and plans to dive right into ‘solving’ the Iranian ‘problem’; we can also expect some further grossly undemocratic deals to be foisted on the Palestinians. By 2012 America could be at war with Iran and Israel-Palestine again the site of mass bloodshed. ‘Hostage to fortune’ does not quite cover it.

It would not be the first time the committee’s decisions have come to look a bit silly. Henry Kissinger has been mentioned; the Oslo accords occasioned a three-way award to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and here we are 15 years later, still waiting for peace.

Capitalism generates war; it relies on a system of competing states to function, and this competition necessarily spills over into armed struggle. It needs international transactions to be guaranteed and a military force to supply that guarantee, which means a global hegemon state (or bloc of states). Against this background, the Nobel Peace Prize can only ever be an expression of starry-eyed utopianism, befitting its bourgeois pacifist founder; between Kissinger and Obama, it has reduced itself to quixotic self-parody.