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Nobel Peace Prize Committee Looks Backwards–Why Won’t Obama?

To the rat-a-tat-tat of wingnut heads popping all around, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this morning to Barack Obama, barely more than eight months after he took office as President. The Obama prize caps a series of Nobel Peace Prizes pointedly aimed at people who are not George W. Bush.

In 2002, the prize went to President Jimmy Carter for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts" while George W. Bush was waging war in Afghanistan and drumming up support for war in Iraq. In 2005, the prize went to the IAEA and Mohamed el Baradei for "their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way" to recognize their role in inspections of Iraq’s nuclear programs which was totally ignored by Bush when he invaded Iraq. In 2007, Al Gore shared the prize with the IPCC for "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change" when Bush was doing everything he could to deny climate change.

The announced rationale for Obama’s prize is "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" and yet it’s hard to come a conclusion that the prize is for anything more than his not being George W. Bush. It seems to me that in making the award, the committee is looking back on eight long years of wars of aggression and torture while breathing a sigh of relief that these will be brought to an end under Obama.

But will they? Yes, Obama has reached out to Muslims in a speech that was a shocking change from Bush’s demonization of Muslims. Yes, Obama has stated a desire to end the war in Iraq and to close Guantanamo. So far, however, Obama only has delivered charming rhetoric on these important fronts. His actions, sadly, have tended to reinforce the worst of the Bush policies after giving them a nice rhetorical dusting off.

It won’t happen, but it is my desire that Obama will use this recognition as an opportunity to step aside from his desire to look forward, not backward, and dwell for a while on the enormity of the crimes Bush committed and what they mean to the rest of the world. A few moments spent in such reflection could perhaps allow him to realize that the best way to prove that the Bush era is truly over is to see that the crimes of that administration are punished so severely that future administrations will be more reluctant to go down that path again.

To cement the promise of his speech reaching out to Muslims, Obama needs to follow through with the closing of Guantanamo, but add to it the closing of other prisons such as Bagram where even more prisoners are languishing without charges being filed. He needs to end the sham of military commissions and introduce full due process for all detainees around the world.

The only way to prove that torture will not be tolerated is to bring the full force of the law down upon all those who have participated in the torture of detainees, from the lowest ranking person "following orders" to those at the highest levels who designed, justified and implemented torture.

Today, Obama is scheduled to have another high level discussion on plans for Afghanistan. Will the prize help him to resist McChrystal’s request to escalate the war through bringing many more troops into the country? Will he choose to escalate the number of drone attacks without doing anything to reduce the currently high ratio of civilians to combatants killed?

If Obama has a conscience at all, he will be humbled by how early in his term as President he has been given this prestigious prize. I hope that this humbling allows him to realize that he was given this prize for who he is not. Will he accomplish enough of the goals described here that he might eventually be considered for a second prize on the basis of who he is?

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Jim White

Jim White

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