Seven years ago this week, when a young American president learned he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into his first term – arguably before he’d made any peace – a somewhat embarrassed Barack Obama asked his aides to write an acceptance speech that addressed the awkwardness of the award.
But by the time his speechwriters delivered a draft, Obama’s focus had shifted to another source of tension in his upcoming moment in Oslo: He would deliver this speech about peace just days after he planned to order 30,000 more American troops into battle in Afghanistan.
The president all-but scrapped the draft and wrote his own version.
The speech Obama delivered – a Nobel Peace Prize lecture about the necessity of waging war – now looks like an early sign that the American president would not be the sort of peacemaker the European intellectuals of the Nobel committee had anticipated.
On matters of war and peace, Obama has proven to be a confounding and contradictory figure, one who stands to leave behind both devastating and pressing failures, as well as a set of fresh accomplishments whose impact could resonate for decades.
He is the erstwhile anti-war candidate, now engaged in more theaters of war than his predecessor. He is the commander-in-chief who pulled more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops out of harm’s way in Iraq, but also began a slow trickle back in. He recoiled against full-scale, conventional war, while embracing the brave new world of drone attacks. He has championed diplomacy on climate change, nuclear proliferation and has torn down walls to Cuba and Myanmar, but failed repeatedly to broker a lasting pause to more than six years of slaughter in Syria.
If there was consensus Obama had not yet earned his Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 2009, there’s little such agreement on whether he deserves it today.
“I don’t think he would have been in the speculation of the Nobel committee now, in 2016, even if he had not already won,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and a close watcher of the Nobel committee. Harpviken said he views Obama’s foreign policy as more conventional and limited than he expected, particularly regarding his use of multilateral cooperation and institutions.
When it comes to finding new instruments for peace, he said, “Obama has been stuck in the old paradigm.”
By some sobering measures, the case for Obama the peacemaker is difficult to make. Analysts who track conflict, refugee populations, terrorist attacks and political upheaval say the world has only become less peaceful during Obama’s tenure, a trend that began just before he took office.
Instances of terrorism have peaked, deaths in battle around the world are at a 25-year high, and the number of refugees and displaced people has reached a level not seen in sixty years, according to the 2016 Global Peace Index, a report on international stability produced by the nonpartisan think-tank the Institute for Economic and Peace. The researchers attributed the trends to the expanded warfare in the Middle East and North Africa and broad ripples across the region and in Europe.
Few would blame global strife on one man, even the commander of the world’s most powerful military. And if anything, Obama’s legacy- and his supporters would say his strength – is a steady wariness of limits of using that military without triggering unintended consequences.
That wariness has led to a seven-year debate over whether the president has used the tools of war to try to make peace too much or little.
The president’s Nobel acceptance speech delivered to Oslo in December 2009 is something of a roadmap to Obama’s thinking on use of force. In it, the president affirmed his readiness to wage war in self-defense and called for new thinking on the concept of “just war.”
“More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region,” Obama said, years before war broke out in Syria. “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
Critics do not see Obama heeding his own call to responsible nations. Obama’s refusal to use force to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, cripple his air force or more aggressively engage in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting have been a steady source of criticism. Many view it as an unfortunate overcorrection from the George W. Bush-era Iraq war.
“The president correctly wanted to move away from the maximalist approach of the previous administration, but in doing so he went to a minimalist, gradualist and proxy approach that is prolonging the war. Where is the justice in that?” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of the book, “Just War Reconsider.” Obama should have worked harder to rally a coalition around a shared vision of a stable Middle East:, he believes. “Part of the requirement of leadership,” Dubik said, “is to operate in that space between where the world is and where the world ought to go.”
The president’s advisers contend such criticism comes from a misguided presumption that more force yields more peace. Cold-eyed assessments of the options in Syria show no certainty of outcomes, they say, only risk of broader conflict.
“In Syria, there is no international basis to go to war against the Assad regime. Similarly, there’s no clearly articulable objective as to how it would play out. What is the end that we’re seeking militarily?” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “The president doesn’t believe you can impose order through military force alone.”
But Obama has in many other cases been willing to use limited force to achieve limited objectives, even risking unintended consequences.
He has ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Syria that have killed civilians and sparked tension in those countries and across the international community. What began as a secret program has become more transparent as Obama has aimed to leave legal limits for his predecessor on the use of unmanned warplanes.
But he has left unanswered the question of how or when those actions will lead to peace, some argued.
Looking back on Obama’s Nobel speech, that dilemma was already there, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former State Department official.
“What’s strikes me most is how different our concept of war was seven years ago,” he said. “We are engaged in a whole series of infinitely sustainable, low-level actions that have no logical endpoint. When do we stop doing drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan? What level of terrorism is acceptable? … We’re engaged in battles with a whole range of groups that are never going to surrender, so how do you decide to stop it? How do you decide what winning looks like?”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.