Tomorrow President Obama will make his case for retaliatory strikes against the Syrian regime with a “nationally televised address.” Obama is seeking Congress’ support for the strike as a response to the Syria government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and he and his staff have been publicly laying out their case and briefing members of the Senate and the House of Representatives in private.
Being the leading advocate for war, in the face of strong public and political opposition, is an odd place to find the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s also not the first time it’s happened.
Since 1901, when the first peace prize was shared by Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, and Frédéric Passy, founder of the French Peace Society, the medal has been awarded some 93 times. And some of those winners went on to be, or already were, leading advocates for war.
Obama isn’t the first U.S. President to win the Peace Prize—he joined the ranks of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter. Teddy’s prize, awarded in 1906, was for “work in helping broker the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.” But, just nine years later, then-former President Roosevelt was pushing for the U.S. to pick up arms. The Raab Collection:
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, many Americans strongly supported the Allies, …and the foremost and outspoken among them was ex-President Theodore Roosevelt. blamed Germany for the war and its atrocities, and openly advocated taking a harsh line against that nation.
Much like Obama’s line against the use of chemical weapons, Roosevelt’s argument for war with Germany was one of preserving the concept of “international morality.” In a letter to British politician Edward Grey, he wrote:
To me the crux of the situation has been Belgium. If England or France had acted toward Belgium as Germany has acted I should have opposed them, exactly as I now oppose Germany. I have emphatically approved your action as a model for what should be done by those who believe that treaties should be observed in good faith and that there is such a thing as international morality. I take this position as an American; who is no more an Englishman than he is a German, who endeavors loyally to serve the interest of his own country, but who also endeavors to do what he can for justice and decency as regards mankind at large and who therefore feels obliged to judge all other nations by their conduct on any given occasion.
…President Wilson is certainly not desirous of war with anybody. But he is very obstinate, and he takes the professorial view of international matters. I need not point out to you that it is often pacificists who halting and stumbling and not knowing whither they are going finally drift helplessly into a war, which they have rendered inevitable, without the slightest idea that they were doing so.
In 1973 the Nobel committee had one of its more controversial moments when it offered the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. National Security Advisor. Kissinger won the prize for leading negotiations to end the Vietnam War. But while he was doing that, says the Telegraph, Kissinger was also “overseeing the secret bombing of Laos.”
In 2010, a year after Obama won his Peace Prize, the medal went to Chinese human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
Xiaobo, says the Nobel Prize committee, “took part in the student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. For that he was sentenced to two years in prison. Later he served three years in a labour camp for having criticised China’s one-party system. For over twenty years, Liu has fought for a more open and democratic China.”
But that description, say two Hong Kong–based professors in the Guardian, doesn’t tell the whole story of Liu Xiaobo.
If Liu’s politics were well-known, most people would not favour him for a prize, because he is a champion of war, not peace. He has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he applauded the Vietnam and Korean wars retrospectively in a 2001 essay. All these conflicts have entailed massive violations of human rights. Yet in his article Lessons from the Cold War, Liu argues that “The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights … The major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.” During the 2004 US presidential election, Liu warmly praised George Bush for his war effort against Iraq and condemned Democratic party candidate John Kerry for not sufficiently supporting the US’s wars.
Those peace efforts, though, came after decades of working for the exact opposite. And, after Arafat’s death in 2004, evidence began coming out that he had played a key role in launching the second intifada, the five-year-long uprising in thousands of Palestinian and Israelis died.
Obviously, there are differences among these particular cases. Obama is arguing for limited retaliatory strikes in the name of preserving relatively flimsy rules of war—not launching a secret bombing campaign or overseeing a popular uprising. But, as Roosevelt said to Edward Grey, even those who oppose war sometimes find themselves in it, whether they wanted it or not.
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