Debasing the Peace Prize

History teaches us to mistrust assurances of avoiding quagmires

If President Obama launches the missile strikes he proposes against Syria, with or without authorization from Congress, he should send his Nobel Peace Prize back to Oslo.

Obama ran for president on an anti-war platform. The Nobel Committee in 2009 cited his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” He said humbly in accepting the prize, “My accomplishments are slight.” He honored Martin Luther King Jr., who said in 1964, “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.”

But Obama, who later saw fit to lecture African Americans on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, stressed in his Nobel lecture his duties as commander in chief. “A non-violent movement,” he said, “could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”

In his weekly address on Sept. 7, Obama assured us, “Any action we take would be limited … designed to deter the Syrian government from gassing its own people again and degrade its ability to do so.” He insisted, “We cannot turn a blind eye” to the horror.

I do not take the president’s responsibilities or concerns lightly. But I do dispute the value of American intrusion into a chaotic civil conflict. I question how we can foster stability by hurling ordnance into a tinderbox. And, even if the president can explain what exactly he plans to do and how it will help (I am writing before his Sept. 10 speech), it will be but our latest mission in which we discount the risk of hurling other people’s sons and daughters into war.

As I write this, I plan to participate in a Sept. 9 anti-war protest outside the U.S. Capitol led by Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. Her heckling is not my style of activism, any more than right-wing Obama critics like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are my kind of politicians. I am not happy opposing the most pro-gay president in history. But I never signed up for a cult of personality, and I will not let partisan considerations govern me in this. I believe we must give politicians both credit and criticism where due. These are grave matters. It is not just the other guy’s weapons that kill the innocent.

The prospect of American military action in an already unstable region, against a tyrant whom American and other Western leaders so recently wined and dined, needs better justification than sending messages or saving face. Other malefactors we aided and subsequently confronted were Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. I will not succumb to the topsy-turvy logic of “Let’s do something, even if it’s wrong.”

In the 1990s, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said to Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” This treatment of deadly weapons like toys in a sandbox, whether by liberals or conservatives, deserves rebuke. True patriots should insist, even when humanitarian concerns are raised, that we pause to consider whether particular acts of war are demanded because America is “the indispensable nation” or because the military-industrial complex requires feeding.

A friend from South Africa said he would be glad to see America take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though that is beyond Obama’s stated intentions. But Americans are increasingly unwilling to pay the price for our overextended military. And history gives us reason to mistrust promises that a limited strike will not lead us into a quagmire. Do not do this, Mr. President.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net. 

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