Obama listens to opening remarks during the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony,
12/10/09. (photo: AP)
There is a combination of frustration and anger in the eyes and words of Barack Obama that I've not seen there before. His idealism and sense of purpose have given way too quickly to the cynicism of the colonialists and militarists he has surrounded himself with.
Pragmatism, for it's own sake, appears for Obama to have become a raison d'etre. Gone are the aspirations and sense of purpose that so clearly differentiated him from his presidential campaign rivals. In place of those best intentions there appears an almost manic obsession to be what those in his entourage tell him he should be.
He still speaks with an intellectual compassion no American president has for decades, perhaps ever. The sense of profound insight and understanding are not gone, but rather rationalized, compartmentalized into manageable irrelevance. All giving way to an acceptance of conclusions Obama himself knows to be flawed.
The decision-making process that led to "Obama's surge," however lengthy, complex, inclusive or deliberative it may have been, ultimately hinged on Obama's greatest currency, populist politics. It was a decision Obama weighed against public opinion first, last and always. "What I'm looking for is a surge ... This has to be a surge." he told military planners. A surge being the very thing that won George W. Bush his only public relations victory of an otherwise disastrous war. A surge would be a politically safe framework for a troop buildup. Obama pressed to get the troops in quickly and out quickly. Beginning a drawdown by 2011 was essential to him. Again, a populist political necessity with presidential elections in 2012.
It would be easy to see all this as US presidential decision-making as usual. Yet, in ways apparent and not this man is different. He wears his inner conflict on his sleeve more so than a warmonger would. He knows that the wars are wrong, and he knows you know he knows they are wrong, and he's OK with that.
The performance in Oslo was embarrassing. "The goal is not to win a popularity contest or to get an award - even one as esteemed as the Nobel Peace Prize," Obama pointed out to a reporter who inquired as to whether the honor was premature. He went further still, saying, "The goal is to advance American interests, make ourselves a continuing force for good in the world - something that we have been for decades now." Sarah Palin used that well-worn Republican cliche in her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden. Obama nearly sounded offended that he should have to so publicly confront the meaning of receiving the world's most prestigious peace prize, while he was intent on playing the role of commander in chief.
Still, the Norwegians, even as Obama lectured them, were eager to engage him in a dialog that they would never have attempted with Bush. Obama through it all remained accessible - contentious - but accessible nonetheless. It was a painful but historically eventful moment. There was US President Barack Obama accepting a Nobel Peace Prize, in Norway, explaining to the Nobel committee members why it was so important for the US to wage war, and they were all politely debating it for all the world to see. Remarkable really.
Barack Obama is waging war, two wars to be precise. They are not good or necessary wars, but wars that scar humanity, like all wars. More importantly, they are wars he knows to be futile and destructive. He stays the course because everyone around him advises him to do so. That's democracy. The bigger question is not whether Obama is justified in accepting the counsel of the war council, but rather can he accept the counsel of the man in the mirror.