The Nobel War Prize

The Commander in Chief of the US military has accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, and in doing so made his most spirited defense yet of the concept of a just war. Troops under his command are in action in two countries, and he made almost no reference to Iraq, where peace is in sight, preferring to focus on Afghanistan, where he has just escalated the fighting.

That he chose to focus on Afghanistan may reflect embarrassment. He always said the war that he is winning was unwinnable but that it was important to win the war he is currently losing. After months of damaging indecision, he seems finally committed to following through the rhetoric. More troops are going to Afghanistan. It is just possible that this speech marks something special. Barack Obama could be getting serious about his job.

Perhaps he believes a Nobel Peace Prize insulates him against criticism from the left. He may believe he can commit to winning the war in Afghanistan without splitting his party because he has been internationally feted for his commitment to peace. If so, he might be able to turn around what is currently the biggest single failing of his presidency. Unlike the economy, it is not even something he can reasonably blame on his predecessor.

Just to recap, the war in Afghanistan wasn’t even controversial 12 months ago. Obama and other Democrats held it up as ‘the good war’ in contrast to Iraq, ‘the bad war’. There was strong bipartisan support for the war until the drift and dither of the Obama administration when support from the President’s own party began to fall away. With the Nobel Peace Prize, he might be able to rally Democrats around him.

The last President to be a recent Senator was Lyndon Johnson. Johnson managed to saddle the country with a massively expensive set of new entitlements and split his party irreparably over race and Vietnam. Obama is far too deft in his handling of racial issues to repeat Johnson’s efforts in that direction. I fear he also lacks the moral courage of Lyndon Johnson, who split his party in a successful campaign to eradicate the stain of segregation. Is there any issue for which Obama would sacrifice his political career in the way that Johnson did?

Nor is it a given, at this point, that Obama will successfully deliver any extension of the welfare state – though it is plainly his intention to do so. If he fails in thisendeavor – as is devoutly to be hoped – getting serious about Afghanistan is probably his best chance of having any real achievements.

But does America’s weakest and most vacillating President in a generation really have the potential to provide that type of leadership? There are some encouraging signs: his rhetorical skills are superb; he is unchallenged in his own party; he has the largest majority in Congress for decades. Yet his inability to commit to a decision on Afghanistan – the procrastination, while people were literally dying for him to make a decision – is a terrible indictment of his leadership so far. It is not as if the war in Afghanistan came out of the blue. He knew it was going to a major issue for him before he ever decided to seek the White House. So what is it to be, Mr. President? Serious, or not?

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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