Accepting the Prize

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I may be wrong, but I think Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because the selection committee was feeling as soul sick as I do at the ebbing of humanity’s great opportunity to corral global militarism and fundamentally reprioritize.

Obama’s election last year rode on global aspirations for — at the very least — a saner world, a humanizing of the values around which nations organize themselves. He fused, or so several billion people believed, the peace, civil rights and environmental movements of the last half century with the realpolitik of presidential elections, and made impossible dreams begin to flicker in the real world.

“If you look at the history of the Peace Prize, we have on many occasions given it to try to enhance what many personalities were trying to do,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee chairman, adding ominously: “It could be too late to respond three years from now.”

Obama’s selection struck me, in other words, not as Orwellian (war is peace) but, well, desperate. It reflects a kind of now-or-never awareness that we either begin making serious, systemic changes in our geopolitical thinking and standing against the concept of perpetual war — revived, in the post-Cold War world, by the Bush-Cheney administration — or we will continue to hemorrhage our humanity for another generation or two and may never get another chance like the one we have at this moment.

It was a do-the-right-thing award — which is to say, it wasn’t an award at all, but rather a political statement. Giving it was shocking and may well have no effect greater than ratcheting up everyone’s cynicism: Oh, wonderful, now they give peace prizes for not closing Guantanamo prison, for strafing Pakistan with robot planes, for not getting out of Iraq, and for escalating the pointless war in Afghanistan. Now they give peace prizes for saying one thing and doing another.

I don’t disagree with these criticisms. What I mistrust is the cynicism they feed. Cynicism is a lot like war itself in that it is relentlessly self-justifying, and sometimes I detect glee in progressive recitations of Obama’s failures: They’re proof that the system is utterly corrupt and beyond redemption, which in turn justifies . . . doing nothing.

This, at any rate, is what I struggle with internally: a hair-trigger readiness to retreat into some theoretical redoubt, where the world actually works. The war-and-domination economy may dictate public policy in the real world, and peace prizes bless acquiescent leadership just as God blesses war, but I can sit back in sublime detachment from it all and shake my head knowingly.

So I accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the president I voted for with the same apologetic reluctance, wondering, oh my God, are they kidding? What does this mean? Do I have to do something different?

I accept it because, as far as I can tell, the award was cast upon the tide of hope of which I was a miniscule part, and there it will sink unless I grasp it in my hands. I urge everyone else who was a part of that tide to lay claim to the prize as well, to grab hold of it with cynicism-shattering reverence, and to ask the question: What does this mean?

What I think it means is that there is no such thing as the Obama Moment, except as I define and act on it myself. There is no sitting back and letting some other guy change the system, or not. There is only what I do or don’t do and the permanent discomfort that accompanies such a realization. I’ll say the award was shocking!

All of which brings me back to the situation at hand, in particular, the war in Afghanistan and Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call, reverberating throughout the media, for an immediate escalation of U.S. forces by as many as 60,000 troops.

What’s at stake here is not a U.S. “victory” over an impoverished, Third World nation or the al-Qaida terrorists, whose fighting strength in Afghanistan, according to James L. Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, is less than 100 men, with “no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” What’s at stake is the notion that the U.S. must always be at war: This is our crossroads.

“If the president assents to McChrystal’s request . . . the Afghanistan war will continue until the end of his first term and probably beyond,” Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wrote on Oct. 11 in the Boston Globe. “It will consume hundreds of billions of dollars. It will result in hundreds or perhaps thousands more American combat deaths. . . .

“As the fighting drags on from one year to the next, the engagement of U.S. forces in armed nation-building projects in distant lands will become the new normalcy. . . . That ‘keeping Americans safe’ obliges the United States to seek, maintain, and exploit unambiguous military supremacy will become utterly uncontroversial.”

Maybe the best use we can make of the Peace Prize is to prop open the door where this deal is being cut right now among the war economy’s biggest winners, and hold it open for the tide of peace.