The fjords are rather fine, but Oslo isn’t Paris. Norway isn’t what they call a destination, probably because the weather is dismal, when the place isn’t locked in with ice and snow the other nine months of the year, and everyone is so Scandinavian – private people who keep to themselves, avoiding public displays of emotions of all sorts, careful and precise and often subtlety ironic, and often massively depressed. They’re not much fun. Maybe that’s the weather, but out here in sunny Los Angeles, down in San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church is just down the street from Croatian Hall, and the Croatian social gatherings are a lot more fun, and the food is better too. Boiled salt-cod just doesn’t cut it. Those years spent in San Pedro, before the move to Hollywood, were instructive – but once a year the world does turn its eyes to Oslo. Each year the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize – which is ironic in itself. Alfred Nobel – the Swedish heavy-arms manufacturer who made a fortune by inventing dynamite – tasked the Parliament of Norway with selecting each year’s winner. Maybe he felt guilty for a career dealing in death and destruction, or maybe these dour Scandinavian people have a sense of humor after all – but this is a big deal. This is the big prize. You can’t top that.
That’s why the Norwegian Nobel Committee is careful and precise. Lots of people suggest nominees to them – some folks here have suggested Rush Limbaugh to them over and over again, perhaps as a joke, or perhaps not – but the committee makes up its own mind, and on October 9, 2009, after looking around and thinking about things, they announced they were awarding that year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, who had been in office all of nine months. We were still in Iraq, and still in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo was still chock full of folks we now knew were innocent dupes or just unlucky – and Obama had done next to nothing about any of that yet.
This was odd, but the committee did cite Obama’s work on nuclear nonproliferation in his short Senate career, where he teamed up on that with Richard Lugar, the long-serving Republican senator that the Tea Party sent packing the following year. That wasn’t much, but the committee only mentioned that in passing. What had impressed them was a “new climate” in international relations created by Obama, by his brand new way of thinking. That also might have been a way of saying that they were glad Obama wasn’t George Bush, but they were particularly impressed by Obama reaching out to the Muslim world. Obama’s famous Cairo speech that June must have impressed them.
No one else was impressed. Obama said he was humbled by winning the big one, but he seemed more embarrassed than humbled, and the public agreed that this made no sense – over sixty percent of American adults polled thought Obama did not deserve anything of the sort, and less than half of them were glad he won. Everyone on the right, and many on the left and in the middle, saw this as merely a slap at George Bush – this had more to do with the befuddled sneering cowboy than with Barack Obama. The best Noam Chomsky could come up with was this – “In defense of the committee, we might say that the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients.”
Chomsky might have been onto something there. In 1973, Henry Kissinger had won the thing, for that year’s Paris peace agreement that he had hammered out with the diplomats from Hanoi, after our massive Christmas carpet-bombing of most of North Vietnam, and the agreement didn’t exactly end the Vietnam War anyway. Maybe it really is better to not “do” anything. Blessed are the peacemakers, because they don’t go around doing stuff? That’s a thought. Or maybe Norwegians are simply strange folks. One never knows when they’re being ironic – but in December, Obama flew off to Oslo to accept the prize, and to give the requisite thoughtful acceptance speech.
That had to be subtle. We were still waging war everywhere, so he cited Reinhold Niebuhr a lot and talked about “just war” theory, but basically said we are forced to face the world as it is – not as we would like it to be. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, reluctantly, which is tragic, but necessary – and that took the stink off the whole thing. Obama spoke of limited necessary war – not much of it, not often – but war nonetheless. Maybe that’s the human tragedy, as he said, but Obama knocked this one out of the park – even Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin loved the speech, as did Andrew Sullivan. John Bolton called it “pedestrian, turgid, and uninspired” and Dennis Kucinich said “Once we are committed to wars instrumentality in pursuit of peace, we begin the Orwellian journey to the semantic netherworld where war is peace” – but they were in the minority. Hawks thought they would get their wars. Doves thought they would get their peace.
Both sides were wrong. We’d get neither, because Obama wasn’t just blowing smoke to save face, as it were. He actually seems to believe in severely limited absolutely necessary war, which is not something with which Americans are comfortable. We go in with overwhelming force, fix the problem, and then quickly leave, just like in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. No, wait – that can’t be right. Yeah, Obama knew that wasn’t right, and all he had to do was convince the nation of that. We should “do” less. After eight years of the sneering cowboy, it should have been easy to get Americans to realize that.
That should have been easy, but it wasn’t. Americans “do” things. That’s who we are, and that’s why Obama is in political trouble now. Oslo, 2009, was one of those rare instances when a politician explains how he’s really thinking and lets everyone know what he’s actually going to do, or not do. This was not just another speech. This was policy, and now, five years later, America is beginning to realize what he was saying, and are seeing it in operation, and they don’t like it much. In the Washington Post, Zachary Goldfarb explains the discomfort:
The week began with the breaking of the siege of Mount Sinjar in Iraq, thanks to U.S. bombing runs, and ended with the public beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria and renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The juxtaposition of military success and public human failure has caused a sense of whiplash around President Obama’s foreign policy and further stoked the debate about his worldview.
Obama’s detractors revived criticism that his foreign policy is based on retreat from the world, typified by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq three years ago, a lack of direct action in Syria and an economics-first approach to driving Russia’s military back from Ukraine.
His supporters argue that his approach has been consistent with his strategy of returning the United States – after post-Sept. 11 wars – to a foreign policy built around economic engagement rather than military intervention.
His supporters are saying he’s just doing his Oslo thing. Weren’t you listening? His detractors are saying he’s not doing that Oslo thing at all. Weren’t you listening? No one is happy:
“He thought he could change the tenor more easily than he could, and I think he thought the world would be more responsive to his desires than the world has proven to be,” said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now he faces the criticism that, whereas the Bush administration embarked on a war of choice in Iraq, he embarks on a series of skirmishes that are reactive and not of his choosing.”
In Oslo, however, Obama may have implicitly promised a series of skirmishes that are reactive and not of his choosing – the human tragedy – but that satisfies no one and leads to its own problems:
In place of the large military deployments, Obama has relied on smaller operations to manage, rather than resolve, many of the conflicts that have arisen during his time in office. The attempted rescue of Foley earlier this year from a camp deep inside Syria stands as the most recent example of that approach.
But smaller has not translated into peace or greater American influence.
After pulling troops from Iraq on the eve of his reelection year, Obama is now overseeing a military operation to protect Iraqi civilians threatened by the Islamic State, secure U.S. personnel in Kurdish Iraq, and advise the country’s U.S.-trained army.
Leaving behind an Iraq dominated by an organization al-Qaeda once disavowed as too extreme would cloud his legacy as the president who ended that war – and would bequeath his successor a difficult national security.
Overwhelming force, applied ruthlessly, fixed nothing, or made things worse, but severely limited absolutely necessary military actions don’t fix things either – that just creates other problems, like ISIS in Syria and now in Iraq:
Obama called for the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government years ago, yet his primary goal has been to eliminate a chemical weapons cache that could be used against U.S. targets or allies if extremist groups take control of them.
The question of how best to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains – short of a boots-on-the-ground deployment Obama has ruled out – is one that he and the Pentagon must deal with. …
Senior administration officials say that as they confront the challenges in Syria and Iraq, however, they are unwilling to sacrifice either of Obama’s guiding principles.
“Iraq and Syria are very much within the goal preventing the threat of terrorism from emanating from outside the United States,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said last week. “That’s a core interest.”
At the same time, he said, Obama is not reconsidering his view that Iraq – and Afghanistan – must be primarily responsible for their own security.
“The basic premise still holds that we’re transitioning from wars in which the United States was on the ground in big numbers fighting to secure Afghanistan and Iraq to Afghans and Iraqis fighting on the ground to secure their own countries,” Rhodes said.
That sounds good, but to some it still seems both reactive and disorganized:
“This president has ignored the threat for a long period of time, and now we’re paying the price,” Sen. John McCain (R) told his home-town newspaper, the Arizona Republic. “The more [Obama] delays and the more he acts incrementally, the more [the Islamic State] adjusts and the more difficult they will become.”
Obama has contributed to the confusion, occasionally turning to vague phrasing and metaphors to explain his foreign policy.
Even former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that “Don’t do stupid stuff” – the president’s latest foreign policy credo – is not an “organizing principle.”
Intervene in Libya but not Syria. Why the one and not the other? And there’s this:
Adding to Obama’s challenges has been the crisis in Ukraine, which has deeply wounded U.S. relations with Russia, and the conflict in Gaza, which has dashed the administration’s hopes of securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Administration officials say Obama has put a lot on the line in both places, sanctioning Russian leaders and sending his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to invest tremendous amounts of time trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
But current and former administration officials see a big difference between what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and what’s happening in Ukraine and Gaza. Iraq and Syria fit into a framework of potentially threatening Americans. Solving the crises in Ukraine and Gaza appeals to U.S. principles of democracy and diplomacy, but they do not pose direct threats.
What is the organizing principle here? In the Oslo speech it was to do only what’s necessary, and to keep it as limited as possible – and that was explained philosophically and quite elegantly. That was a deep and thoughtful and moving speech. The short form is less moving and quite blunt. Don’t do stupid stuff. Folks liked the Oslo version, but it’s the same thing. They just weren’t paying attention. It’s the beat of ambiguous war drums.
At least someone is with Obama here:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “war hawk” and added that if she decides to run for president in 2016 voters will question whether she wants to bring the U.S. into another war in the Middle East.
Paul, himself a potential 2016 candidate, made the comments during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s going to be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, ‘You know what? We are tired of war,” Paul said, according to The Associated Press. “We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”
This may be political positioning, a bit of pure opportunism on Paul’s part, but Heather Parton adds this:
A legitimate concern, I’d say. I know I’m concerned about it. But why exactly is Rand Paul running in the Party who’s membership is currently peeing its pants and running around hysterically exhorting the current president to start bombing/invading/killing something immediately because the boogeyman is coming to kill-all-our-babies-oh-my-God!
She’s not kidding:
House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday that he believes the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has put the U.S. in more danger than it was in the lead up to the Sept. 11 attacks more than a decade ago.
“Before 9/11, there were single-level threat streams coming to the United States. So, pretty serious. Obviously they got in and conducted the attacks on 9/11. Now you have multiple organizations, all al Qaeda-minded, trying to accomplish the same thing,” Rogers said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Now you have two competing terrorist organizations, both of them want to get their credentials to the point where they can say, ‘We are the premier terrorist organization.’ Both want to conduct attacks in the West for that reason. And guess what? That means we lose at the end. If either one of those organizations is successful, we lose.”
“The threat matrix is so wide and it’s so deep. We just didn’t have that before 9/11,” Rogers said.
And there’s this:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday called for President Obama to target leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria after the beheading of an American journalist last week.
“It’s about time to assume the worst about these guys,” Graham during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’re not the JV team anymore; they’re the most prominent terrorist organization in the world.”
ISIS leaders released a video last week of a man who appeared to have a British accent beheading journalist James Foley.
Graham said it would be easy for ISIS to target locations in the U.S. if they are not confronted directly by the Obama administration because members hold western passports.
“I would argue that the intel that we’ve been provided in Congress is that there are hundreds of Americans citizens holding U.S. passports, there are European citizens going to the fight,” he said. “They’ve expressed a will to hit the homeland. That’s part of their agenda to drive us out of the Mideast.
“There’s no way you can solve the problem in Iraq without hitting them in Syria,” the South Carolina Republican said.
“The goal is to hit ISIL in Syria to deal with their command and control,” he added.
“I think the purpose of going into Syria is deal with the threat to the homeland,” Graham said.
She also points to Bill Kristol on This Week with this – “I would like a little overreaction now!”
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards Kristol the Nobel Peace Prize, after Kristol is elected president, that bit of enthusiasm can be his acceptance speech. Until then, there are Democrats doing the Oslo thing, like Senator Jack Reed:
“We have to begin with the assumption that they could be such a threat, then we have to evaluate what their capabilities are, what their intentions,” he said. “I don’t think we can simply dismiss ISIS, but to jump from what they’ve done with this horrific incident with Mr. Foley to the idea that they would be an immediate threat to the homeland, I don’t think you jump to that.”
And there’s Senator Mark Pryor:
“I don’t think most Arkansans believe that we should be the world’s policeman,” Pryor said this week, according to the Baxter Bulletin.
“We need to work with our allies. We need to try to help and provide a stable situation, and certainly look out for the humanitarian concerns, but at the end of the day, a lot of these countries, they just have to take responsibility for their own countries,” he said.
Yes, Democrats are warmongers too and perhaps Hillary Clinton is as hawkish as Rand Paul says she is. But unless Rand Paul is willing to govern with a Democratic majority and face impeachment from his own, he’s not going to have any room to be a dove. Even Obama is getting hit hard and he’s hardly an isolationist. How in the world could Paul hope to fight that martial impulse as a GOP president? It makes no sense. If there is one thing you can count on in the modern Republican Party it’s the bloodlust for war.
She suspects that Rand Paul just doesn’t get it:
Again, the question is, if Paul wants to run on the peace platform, why in the world is he a Republican? They have about four people in the whole party who don’t believe we should be bombing the hell out of the entire Middle East right now. At least on the Democratic side leaders are taking a short breath before they run around in circles, rending their garments and wailing about the threat to “the Homeland.” I’m sure it won’t be long before they join in the hysteria, but it does show at least a couple of degrees of difference between the two parties.
It does, for now, but soon Obama may be very lonely. What he said in Oslo in 2009 will be dredged up and ridiculed. Severely limited absolutely necessary war is not something with which Americans are comfortable, and more horror stories, magnified in the media, because people love to be scared and can’t tear their eyes away, and advertisers know that, will seal the deal. But in Oslo, Obama did say we must accept the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and that means one must know what’s possible, and what’s not possible:
A U.S. offensive in Syria against the radical Islamist group that beheaded an American journalist would likely be constrained by persistent intelligence gaps and an inability to rely on fleets of armed drones that have served as the Obama administration’s signature weapon against terrorist networks elsewhere, U.S. officials said.
The Pentagon has conducted daily surveillance flights along Iraq’s border with Syria in recent weeks as part of a push to bolster U.S. intelligence on the Islamic State without crossing into Syrian airspace and risking the loss of aircraft to that nation’s air defenses, officials said.
The CIA has also expanded its network of informants inside Syria, largely by recruiting and vetting rebel fighters who have been trained and equipped at clandestine agency bases in Jordan over the past two years, U.S. officials said.
Still, senior U.S. intelligence and military officials – speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations – said American spy agencies have not yet assembled the capabilities that would be needed to target Islamic State leaders and provide reliable-enough intelligence to sustain a campaign of strikes.
There you have it. There’s doing what is absolutely necessary, because the world is a fallen place with any number of very nasty people, and they must be confronted, and there’s limiting your actions to doing only what’s really necessary, and no more, because “doing stuff” is addictive and can lead to slow-rolling decades of disaster, and then there’s what is even possible. Obama tried to explain that in Oslo. Everyone nodded. Yes, that is so – great speech – and now they finally see what that means, and they don’t like it at all. They wish it weren’t so, but it is so. The Norwegian Nobel Committee might have done the right thing after all. Oslo might not be a place anyone wants to visit, but the folks there can be surprising. Try the boiled salt-cod.