Sunday, December 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Doctrine and the Pacifist's Dilemma

Image: 'The Nobel Doctrine' by D1 Designs (issued under CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 license)

On December 2 at West Point Military Academy, President Barack Obama announced his long-awaited new strategy on US military policy in Afghanistan, pitched as a short-term escalation of the war coupled with the intention to begin troop withdrawals by July 2011. On December 10 in Oslo, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded according to the Nobel Committee 'for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.'

He is the fourth US President to have been awarded the prize, following Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, but the only one to have been awarded it during his first year in office. This decision by the Nobel Committee prompted much criticism around the world that he'd yet to do anything noticeable enough to warrant the honour.

Addressing the irony of receiving the award so soon after announcing the despatching of another 30,000 troops, along with the other criticisms made, Obama commented in his speech
I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this accomplishments are slight...But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars.
Naturally, his remarks have sparked extensive reflection amongst the global commentariat. The BBC's Mark Mardell believes that Obama has 'pulled off a difficult balancing act in walking the tightrope between war and peace'. The Guardian's Martin Kettle described the speech as having not just a reprimand to the Nobel committee for awarding the prize before he had any notable achievements to be worthy of the award but also to liberals who refuse to understand that 'politics will always be more complicated, nuanced and messy' than they seem to understand. Steven Hurst for the Associated Press interpreted the speech as many others have also done - no less than the outlining of the Obama Doctrine, 'a steadfast defense of warfare against evil, praise of nonviolence and exhortations for mankind to affirm the 'spark of the divine' in everyone'.

I felt that by Obama's standards, it was a good speech, and not a surprising one from a man that is the President of the United States and who has both a job to do and an incredible global mess inherited from his predecessor to try and clear up. To please everybody would be an impossible task. The best that he realistically could hope for is to leave the situations he has found himself responsible for in a better state than they were when he picked up the reins, whilst striving to actually improve them rather than just leave them in a less worse state.

However, I still come to the Afghan question as an avowed pacifist, a person who believes that non-violence has to be the primary approach to resolving issues of conflict, and one that is fully aware of the history of failed intervention in that particular country - such as those of the British and the Soviet Union - that has earned Afghanistan the sobriquet of 'the graveyard of Empires'.

A dictionary definition of pacifism describes the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. It goes on to describe that a pacifist will refuse to participate in war or military service because of such a belief.

This is a belief that I have held for much of my life, a fusion of family influences (such as a grandfather who was a conscientious objector during World War II - a particularly difficult position to take at the time) and the evolution of my own observations of the world and its human history, combined with my sense of justice - a sense that echoes the epithet most often attributed to Gandhi that 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' (ie revenge only breeds the desire for more revenge).

This belief also contributed to my leaving the UK in disgust at what I saw to be Tony Blair's attempts at British imperial revivalism with the joint invasion of Iraq back in 2003, and subsequently my setting up of an organisation in Japan (where I moved to) for the purpose of raising consciousness amongst a younger generation of Japanese of the idea of peace - a concept embedded in their country's constitution but which many younger people seemed almost unaware of despite the suffering that their country had both experienced and inflicted during the last period of major global conflict.

Whilst working on this consciousness-raising effort, I studied the notions of conflict and peace more deeply than I had before, as a vehicle for examining my own beliefs. Having always tried to avoid conflict at all costs, my position underwent an evolution of sorts. The No-Nonsense Guide to Conflict and Peace describes conflict as having some benefits, and being therefore not a concept to dismiss completely:

Conflict can prevent stagnation; stimulate interest and curiosity, the airing of problems, the development of solutions. External conflict can promote internal group cohesion. Creatively handled, discord can enable social structures to readjust by eliminating sources of dissatisfaction and removing the causes for opting out, so creating a new balance in a society.
With such insights, I re-evaluated problems that I faced in the work I was doing. I soon found that in facing up to and tackling a problem head-on rather than accepting it and avoiding dealing with it invariably led to that problem finding some sort of resolution. This does not lead on to suggest that violence therefore becomes acceptable, but merely that conflict doesn't always have to be avoided.

During the news about Obama's Afghan escalation, I had a telephone conversation with my father, a man I can generally talk to in depth about global affairs and who has a good understanding of history and politics, amongst other things. He was raised in much stronger socialist traditions than I was and we talked about Afghanistan. I asked him what would he do or suggest as a solution, mindful that he would be fully aware of the history of failed intervention in the area.

He had no clear answers to the question either, for it seems to be an intractable problem for those who care about the fate of other peoples around the world. He described his repulsion at the medieval actions of the pre-invasion Taliban government, in particular their treatment of women, and then went on to talk about the British and European volunteers who went to Spain to fight Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War, and the subsequent fight against Hitler and fascism as examples were using violence was deemed necessary to overcome the 'greater evil'.

Wary as I am of Godwin's Law, which states that '
as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches' and its use suggests overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided as it robs valid comparisons of their impact, in the big pacifist issue of whether there is ever a right time to use violence or take up arms to resolve a conflict, it seems appropriate to invoke the Hitler analogy.

This then leads to the question of whether the Taliban posed as serious a threat to the international community as the Nazis did. On a surface level, in allegedly sheltering Osama Bin Laden shortly after 9/11, there was certainly a provocation to a recently wounded giant. However, it hardly ranks as highly as the invasion of Poland in the provocative stakes.

Did the Taliban have an intention for conquering other peoples as part of their gameplan? While it seems that some of their very strict interpretation of sharia law spread to parts of Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that the group that ruled the country from 1996 - 2001 had serious expansionist intentions. Arguably, they emerged only due to the power vacuum left in an Afghanistan divided by the warlords that stepped in after the Soviet withdrawal.

Should Allied powers have intervened militarily then on humanitarian grounds? Following the Battle of Mogadishu, the US refused to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and was criticised heavily for not doing so. This act of non-intervention by Western powers had clearly changed when, even prior to the Bush Administration, Tony Blair sent troops in to places such as Sierra Leone under 'humanitarian interventionist' grounds. Yet if saving native populations from vicious regimes is the policy of Western military powers, why not Burma, Zimbabwe or Darfur?

The case for ending further war has been made most eloquently by Malalai Joy - an Afghan - in a column published in The Guardian. She states that '
it is not a case of a 'bad war' and a 'good war' (Obama's describes a 'just war' in his Nobel speech) – there is no difference, war is war'. Should the people of the country, devastated by decades of foreign invaders and civil wars, should they not have the ultimate say in how their country is managed?

Ultimately, these kind of conundrums raise more questions than they provide answers. While I can say that I'm overjoyed that the President of what still remains the most powerful country on the planet is a thoughtful and intelligent man who clearly has peaceful intentions rather than warmongering ones, I remain sorry that he has chosen to prolong the military actions that his country (and this one, amongst many more) will continue to inflict on that ravaged place. I remain saddened that he has chosen to have the blood of innocent women and children (for they are always the unchosen victims of war) on his hands. I appreciate his position and the massive challenges he faces, but still disagree with him over the most vital questions of war and peace.

I haven't solved the pacifist's dilemma over the Hitler issue in this post, but will end with the words of Buffy Sainte-Marie from her song 'Universal Solider':
He’s fighting for democracy,
he’s fighting for the reds
He says it’s for the peace of all.
He’s the one, who must decide,
who’s to live and who’s to die.
And he never sees the writing on the walls.

But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon to the war.
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier
And he really is the blame
But his orders comes from
far away no more.

They come from him.
And you and me.
Oh, brothers can’t you see.
This is not the way we put an end to war
Comments welcomed.


Anonymous said...

"a grandfather who was a conscientious objector during World War II - a particularly difficult position to take at the time"

'difficult'? it sounds a damn sight easier than risking your life going to war

Globalism said...

Thanks for your comment.

Perhaps 'difficult' was not the right word to use. Yes, on one hand choosing not to go to war looks like the easier choice than going. In doing just that, he had to justify himself to a tribunal and risk himself and his family being ridiculed or even ostracised as a result of his actions. He took the decision because he did not believe in war or killing as a solution to problems.

I appreciate the bravery of those who choose to stand up and fight for what they believe to be right. I also believe that it is a brave act to stand by one's principles when all around you the prevailing culture is pushing in the opposite direction.

As I tried to make clear in the post, the dilemma of being a pacifist is truly tested in rare situations such as the fight against the Nazis. I didn't say that I had an answer to the dilemma either.

We are a very inventive species, yet sometimes we are no better than the beasts. Our history might be characterised by the battles we have fought against each other, yet if we are to evolve beyond that, then we need examples of other ways of doing things.

Maybe in Obama's shoes Gandhi would still have gone for a troop escalation. However, if he'd proposed violence against British rule, it's pretty likely that he would have died far sooner than he did.

If you wish to respond, feel free to do so under your own name rather than anonymously.

Anonymous said...

- actually just apologising for my post (unnecessary and unhelpful), and did not warrant such an eloquent response fro yourself. I was in a rotten mood at the time.

Globalism said...

No worries, and thanks for replying again.

Hope you're in a better mood now!