The upbeat response to Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize welcomes it as a boost toward a gentler world, one that Obama is striving for. You might call it something of a faith or hope-based response. The gloomier reaction is a more fact-based one -- at least in the eyes of those who share it -- the central facts being Obama's actual conduct of the wars he inherited.
George W. Bush left the White House with 173, 000 US troops deployed in the two principal US wars (142,000 in Iraq and 31,000 in Afghanistan). By the end of Barack Obama's first year in office, there are expected to be 178,000 deployed -- 120,000 in Iraq and 68,000 in Afghanistan. (The numbers would grow if Obama agreed to General McChrystal's current request for still more troops.).
Whatever else you might think about the award, the fact that having only 5,000 more troops deployed in foreign wars a year after taking office will get a US president the Peace Prize, at least suggests that when it comes to American presidents, the Nobel Committee does not seem to be setting the bar too high. In fact, it appears that simply not being George Bush may be decisive. (And with Al Gore having won as well, you kind of have to feel bad for John Kerry.)
Now, it's not that Obama's unfit for the award, or anything like that. After all, Henry Kissinger got one too. But even though Richard Nixon's then-Secretary of State still ought to worry about what might happen if this international war crimes tribunal thing ever got serious, there was nonetheless an undeniable rationale for his sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho, who headed the Vietnamese delegation at the prolonged talks to end America's war in Vietnam. Peace is, after all, made by enemies. (Le Duc Tho declined the award on the grounds that his country was not actually at peace.)
But it is hard to see how this apparent endorsement of hope over experience doesn't add to the difficulty of getting America to confront the wars Washington has run in our name -- and at this point, particularly the one in Afghanistan. The first line of defense of the Obama Administration on this front is that the President has needed time to figure what to do with this situation that was not of his making. It seems, though, there may not be a limit to how much time he needs, given that the Administration has refused to accede to a proposal -- supported by a majority of House Democrats -- that it provide an Afghanistan "exit strategy" by the end of this year and, instead, defeated it with the support of House Republicans -- and the House Democrats' leadership.
What better endorsement could there be for the President settling into a policy of seemingly permanent war than receiving the world's most prominent peacemaker award? Somehow, I don't think the Nobel people gave too much thought to any effect this might have on grassroots American would-be peacemakers trying to persuade their peers to get out on the street, pick up the phone, or even tap a keyboard to protest the Afghanistan War. Hey, don't mess with the man -- he's got a track record. If this is the road to peace, maybe McChrystal's additional 40,000 troops can get us there even quicker.
And this little setback from Norway came right on the heels of the report that "Code Pink rethinks its call for Afghanistan pullout." The story wasn't actually as dramatic as it first seemed, in that Code Pink, although arguably the nation's steadiest antiwar organization, was formed in response to the Iraq invasion and does not appear to have ever called for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
After a visit there, Medea Benjamin, a Code Pink cofounder and its most prominent spokeswoman, told the Christian Science Monitor that rather than call for complete US troop withdrawal in two years, "We would leave with the same parameters of an exit strategy but we might perhaps be more flexible about a timeline." She cited the fact that "So many people [in Afghanistan] are saying that, 'If the US troops left, the country would collapse. We'd go into civil war'" -- presumably somehow worse than the current war.
Elaborating her position in a subsequent radio interview, Benjamin said, "We're against sending in more troops, we're against troops being visibly present in the villages because we think their presence is more of a threat to people there and puts them at risk. And we want our troops to pull out. We just want to do it in a way that is not going to lead to a Taliban takeover that will put women back inside the home."
Here she unquestionably hits upon the point that gives more people pause in calling for a complete Afghanistan withdrawal than any other -- the Taliban and women. And there's no talking your away around this being a problem. Although proto-taliban sorts were welcome proxies when Washington's enemy in Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, the Taliban has never had many sympathizers in the US -- or anywhere else outside the immediate neighborhood, for that matter. And so, anything Code Pink does to emphasize the importance of the rights of Afghan women in any negotiations that might occur is obviously to the good.
The temporizing position does have a down side, though. By not having "troops being visibly present in the villages," the already limited reach of the Kabul government would presumably grow even lesser. (Code Pink was only able to meet people in Kabul, since leaving the capital was considered too dangerous.) And then, the more the US military refrains from air strikes, the greater the push back there will be for a more aggressive approach. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently noted that not only has McChrystal "changed the rules in terms of air power," but "he has issued a directive that convoys obey Afghan traffic laws and, in fact, that our troops take some additional risk to themselves to avoid innocent Afghan casualties." Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has responded with a sentiment we will hear frequently: "I am troubled if we are putting our troops at greater risk in order to go to such extremes to avoid Afghan casualties,"
And behind Collins' reaction are constituents like retired Marine Corps 1st Sgt. John Bernard, whose son was recently killed in Afghanistan and who complains of "the insanity of the current situation and the suicidal position this administration has placed these warriors in." He concludes that "We've hamstrung ourselves in fear of angering a population that hates us anyway."
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Ultimately, there is probably as much truth and logic behind John Bernard's position as there is behind Medea Benjamin's. Expanding women's rights in foreign countries via military occupation is not a sane approach -- and that's not what this war is about. And so, while it may have been a bit surprising to see an organization so prominent as Code Pink seem to flounder a bit on the Afghanistan War, it only reflects a nation that has never really focused on the whys and wherefores of an eight year-long war, which a new Administration seems on the verge of signing on to for another eight. So perhaps the organization's trip to Kabul will have the virtue of focusing a few more Americans on the reality of our being an occupying power.
And as for this Obama prize thing, you've got to wonder whether the College of Cardinals are getting any ideas. After all, even after eight years, he'd still be pretty young for a Pope.