A Minnesota farm boy gets accepted to Yale. On his first day on campus, ambling down the oak-shaded lanes, he meets a toothy young swell whose blood matches his navy blazer. The two exchange words of praise for the pleasant autumn afternoon, and then the Minnesotan ventures a query.
“So,” he says, with rounded vowel, “could you tell me where the library is, then?”
The Yankee’s smile fades. “Here at Yale,” he remarks, with clipped consonant, “we do not end our sentences with conjunctions.”
“Oh,” the Minnesotan replies, pausing briefly before continuing. “Well, let me rephrase that. So, could you tell me where the library is, then, asshole?”
In the great white north, such yarns are spun as commentary upon the noxious haughtiness of the Mayflower set, but also upon the knack of those of Scandinavian heritage for what might be called over-understatement. This delicate art, passed down from one generation of phlegmatic Norwegian and stoic Swede to the next, is employed to put the priggish in their place. Over-understatement is drawn from the sub-Arctic folk wisdom that revenge is best served, well, not cold, exactly, but chilled.
It is difficult not to see the farm boy’s icy barb in the Nobel Peace Prize awarded on October 9 to President Barack Obama. So insufferable was George W. Bush, so plain his patrician arrogance under the back-slapping Texan veneer, that his successor gets the ultimate stamp of world approval just nine months into the presidency. So destructive was Bush to global peace and security, so sharp his elbows in the scrum of international affairs, that the Norwegians place their treasured laurels on the crown of the first guy to walk into the White House after the Yale frat boy’s exit. How else to interpret the Nobel committee’s encomium? “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” The initial clause is a statement of fact, but the second is readily translated Norse code for “the last eight years have been a nightmare.” It is a garland frosted with spite.
Immediate reaction to the award was bemused. If Barack Obama rode a wave of optimism onto the world stage, those abroad who are paying attention to what he has actually done must be rather perplexed. Indeed, among the first questions that reporters asked of committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland was which of Obama’s expansive campaign promises he has fulfilled, in order to merit the honor. Jagland answered that the president has “created a new climate in international politics” restoring “multilateral diplomacy” and the United Nations to their rightful privileged position.
Can it be that this is it? Is the Nobel committee simply composed of starry-eyed Obama groupies who think the president’s new tone means that change is really coming? Do the Norwegians deserve the smorgasbord of sniggers being set out, predictably, by American right-wingers? “Apparently, they now give out a Nobel Peace Prize for good intentions,” former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson japed on the Washington Post’s website. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, piled on with the news that the neo-conservatives’ flagship magazine had slated a parody feature under the headline, “Barack Obama Wins 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.” “But now we’ll have to scrap it,” he shrugged sardonically. Piqued by the hilarity on the right, Obama’s amen corner scrambled to retort. It took the flacks at the National Security Network until 12:30 pm on October 9 to come up with this meek rejoinder: “Historically the prize has often been awarded to people in the midst of their work.”
But no, the Scandinavians are not so easy to read, and the partisan bickering in the US is a red herring. Jagland’s answer to the reporter’s question was another jab at Bush, as well as appreciation for Obama’s indications, particularly in the June 4 speech in Cairo, that the United States aspires to be primus inter pares rather than Caesar. Such, undoubtedly, is the message that the other rich nations absorb when Obama, as in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 23, says, “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” This rhetoric serves dual purposes for the White House: While Americans hear it as repudiation of the “blame America first” attitude that so offends their patriotic pride, Europe and Japan hear it as endorsement of US “soft power,” the velvet glove that they so prefer to Bush’s naked iron fist.
And perhaps there is another subtext to the committee’s announcement, one intended to prod rather than poke in the eye. At the press conference, Jagland continued, “We have not given the prize for what may happen in the future. We are awarding Obama for what he has done in the past year. And we are hoping this may contribute a little bit for what he is trying to do.” What has Barack Obama done for peace in the past year? He has spoken well, and at times convincingly, of the need to face squarely the problems of global scale, like climate change, that imperil the planet. He has pledged to work for “a world free of nuclear weapons”—a laudable goal that the US has a special responsibility to achieve. He has arranged for the transfer of 13 Uighurs wrongly imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay to Palau and flown four others to Bermuda. And that is about it, as Obama himself acknowledged when he characterized the prize as “a call to action.”
So it is not surprising that the second round of instant analysis saw additional subtlety in this Nobel, this time applied not with the sledgehammer aimed at Bush, but with the precision of Scandinavian engineering. In the words of Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler, Obama’s is “a classic case of an aspirational award.” Put more strongly, the committee has issued a plaintive call upon Obama to live up to the mighty hopes invested in him when he was elected and inaugurated. The entreaty goes like this: We have heard your words, and we like them. Now do something to relieve the despair of the Bush era. By all means persist in your domestic political squabbles, bizarre as they are, but, please, drop this angst-ridden Democratic dithering in your foreign policy.
Guantánamo Bay is the first case in point. The world cheered when candidate Obama vowed to close down the naval base’s jailhouses where the Bush administration warehoused the “enemy combatants” it unilaterally declared to be without fundamental human rights. The world heaved a sigh of relief when President Obama, on his first full day in office, signed an executive order to implement his promise within the year. Since then, the Uighurs aside, his most vigorous action has been to reassign the adviser entrusted with the task of managing the closure. White House Counsel Gregory Craig, asked by the Washington Post for comment on his own divestiture, revealed the logic that, on this issue and others, seems to guide the chief executive: “I thought there was, in fact, and I may have been wrong, a broad consensus about the importance to our national security objectives to close Guantánamo and how keeping Guantánamo open actually did damage to our national security objectives.” When Obama was met with (gasp!) right-wing hyperventilation over the prospective closure instead of cooperation, he did not mount the bully pulpit to underscore why his move was necessary to restore the rule of law and reassert human decency. He did not spend his political capital, as his predecessor might have done. Rather, he scaled back his ambition in pursuit of the bipartisan consensus that is worshipped like a golden calf by the Washington press corps, despite history’s lesson that broad agreement is usually achieved only upon inaction or, as with the health care debacle, upon boodle for political contributors.
On another vaunted campaign pledge, withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the Obama administration has comparably little to boast about. The accord that is in place between the US and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was inked by the outgoing Bush administration, in what the neo-conservatives bitterly, but aptly, described as a gift to the incoming Democrat. Where Obama promised to pull out of Iraq within 16 months of assuming the presidency, the Bush-Maliki deal substituted an 18-month timetable—and few Obama supporters begrudge their man the difference. As Jane Arraf reports in the September-October Columbia Journalism Review, however, the US military remains deeply involved in the daily affairs of Iraq, its retreat within base walls notwithstanding. The idea floated by Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, for joint US-Kurdish-Arab patrols along what American officers call the “trigger line” in northern Iraq is clear demonstration that the 18-month timetable may be adjusted. And yet, as Arraf writes, “In a country with 130,000 US troops fighting a war that still costs tens of billions of dollars a month, the military might as well be invisible.” It will not stay that way—and, soon enough, Obama’s Iraq policy will look more like extension of occupation than pursuit of peace.
Then there is the fact, which ought to discomfit the Nobel committee greatly, that Obama campaigned upon de-escalation of the Iraq war expressly so as to enable escalation of the combat in Afghanistan and, possibly, Pakistan as well. In the fall of 2009, it is apparent to armchair generals left, right and center that “the good war” of the liberals, like “the wrong war at the wrong time” in Iraq, has become a morass. As in Iraq, the radical Islamist fighters who are classifiable as “al-Qaeda” find room for maneuver only because a sizable portion of the native population resents and distrusts the US intervention. The Taliban, though they profess an Islamist ideology, are at home in parts of Afghanistan because they fight the foreign invaders on behalf of Pashtun nationalism. This reality so contrasts with the orthodoxy in the US that the armchair generals do not know what to think. The neo-conservatives echo the theater commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in demanding more soldiers and hinting that any other course is akin to appeasement. Obama’s defenders, mostly unable to question the premises of the war, are reduced to merely denouncing the critics’ encroachment into the president’s domain. The National Security Network robotically lauds Obama for being contemplative where the Bush administration was rash, and castigates the neo-conservatives for their belated rediscovery of the right war at the right time. Columnist Eugene Robinson, one of the more thoughtful Obama loyalists in the mainstream press, suggested that McChrystal “shut up and salute.” But the Afghanistan debate, after eight years of war, has not advanced to the stage that the Iraq debate had reached after two: Few laptop bombardiers have busied themselves drafting exit strategies. And, at the deliberative Obama White House, only one strategic choice has been ruled out, according to a top official quoted in the October 8 New York Times: “There is no option that would entail a dramatic reduction in troops.”
In the reminders of past “aspirational awards,” an unfortunate precedent has often been cited—that of Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, celebrated in 1994 for the previous year’s Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo agreement’s primary accomplishments at the time were Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and creation of the Palestinian Authority to replace Israel’s military administration of the Occupied Territories with a Palestinian civil one. Today only the first of the accomplishments lasts, and its value is debatable, as is the claim of the PLO to represent the Palestinians. As for the Palestinian Authority, it has split in two, half of it democratically elected but unrecognized by Israel or the outside world, and the other half self-appointed and clinging to international recognition so desperately that it would not push for UN Security Council measures against Israel during a war in which entire families of non-combatant Palestinians were killed by indiscriminate Israeli shelling. Obama, it should now be recalled, declined to speak out against Israel’s assault upon Gaza while it was underway in the winter of 2008-2009. After taking office, he was hailed for appointing a tough-minded negotiator, former Sen. George Mitchell, to coax a settlement freeze out of Israel as a prelude to more comprehensive talks. In September, however, this same presidential envoy backed down from the settlement freeze demand, because, as in the case of Guantánamo Bay, he had encountered (zoinks!) resistance and the White House is unwilling to spend any political capital to overcome it. One fears that one day the National Security Network will say of Obama, as it did of Arafat, Peres and Rabin, that he “received the award not because [he] had resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but because [he] had set out to resolve it in such an inspiring way.”
All is not bleak, however. The Norwegians watch the news, and they have discerned in the blather of Sarah Palin, Joe Wilson, Glenn Beck and the cavalcade of idiots who have besieged the Obama White House with silliness still another dark purpose: to goad Obama into military action against Iran. The president, for his part, has stuck to his campaign promise of direct talks with the Islamic Republic, sending emissaries to meet its nuclear negotiating team in Geneva on October 1 and inviting the Iranian foreign minister to Washington immediately beforehand. The neo-conservatives yelped on cue, particularly since the first round of talks seemed promising, but they have a new script. There is a genuine dilemma confronting Obama with regard to Iran. Does not engagement with the current hardline regime in Tehran help it to consolidate power following the stolen June 9 presidential election? Is it not an insult to the millions of Iranians who protested the election “result” and the thousands who were thrown behind bars for exercising their freedom of speech? The Obama administration has smartly refused to pronounce a verdict upon the election one way or another. The president can safely stop there. The danger is that he will heed the hawkish voices in the corridors of power, such as that of National Security Council man Dennis Ross, and up the ante against the hardliners with threats and further isolation. He has already traveled halfway down this path, with his talk of intensified international sanctions upon Iran for its ongoing nuclear research. The story of sanctions upon Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has a clear moral. Gary Sick of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council sums it up: “The end game of sharply increased sanctions is war.”
On this front, therefore, one can take heart in the Nobel committee’s decision, and credit them with a cleverness obscured by their admiration for Obama’s fine speeches and inability to name the corresponding deeds. How can this Nobel laureate, so transparently chosen to rebuke George W. Bush for his illegal, unjustified “preemptive” war, launch yet another one? For that matter, how can the Nobel winner yield to Gen. McChrystal and send the additional Marines to Afghanistan? It is tempting, indeed, to see Obama’s as a preemptive Peace Prize.
In the great white north, there is another, more common genre of Scandinavian joke in which one of the protagonists is, well, a bit thick.
Sven and Ole are hired to paint the exterior of a neighbor’s house. Sven helps his partner apply a coat to the third and second stories, and then departs to start another job. He returns two days later to find Ole still sweating over the ground floor of the house. “Ole!” he exclaims. “What on God’s green earth is taking so long?”
“Well,” huffs Ole in response, “I’ve been painting like a madman all day to finish on time. I mean, how was I supposed to reach all the way down here? I spent all day yesterday digging holes for the ladder.”
With its byzantine health care proposal, the Obama administration has dug holes aplenty for the ladder. Its chosen routes to peace in the various war zones of the Middle East are similarly indirect and pocked with pitfalls. For now, there is comfort, cold as it may be, in the knowledge that the Nobel committee has told the president of the most powerful nation in the world to stop digging.