Obama justifies war in acceptance speech for Nobel Peace Prize

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

I listened to the speech delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony, held on the evening of December 10, Japan time, with mixed feelings. I did not feel the same sense of affinity, even exhilaration, that I experienced during his speech in Prague in April, in which he noted the "moral responsibility" of the United States to act, as the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, and pledged to seek "a world without nuclear weapons." To my eyes, Mr. Obama's expressions on TV appeared far more grim in comparison to his address in Prague.

One reason for this grim tone, adopted from the outset of his speech, reflected his awareness of the criticism that has been leveled over the decision to award Mr. Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize: "He hasn't done enough to deserve it" and "It's too early for him to get it." Another reason is due to the fact that most of the speech was devoted to his perspective on war and peace, as the U.S. "commander-in-chief" waging two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The emergence of President Obama on the world stage has certainly fueled momentum for nuclear disarmament, which had stagnated and suffered setbacks under the former Bush administration. This new impetus for abolition has given a great deal of hope to the world, including the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mr. Obama's shift from the unilateral policies of the former administration to a multilateralism emphasizing the United Nations and the recognition of diverse views, including religious and cultural differences, as well as his attempts to tackle issues common to humanity as a whole, have drawn the sympathy of a large number of the world's people.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who launched the Iraq War, made a provocative remark when referring to Iraqis under the Saddam Hussein regime attacking U.S. troops: "Bring them on," he said. In contrast, Mr. Obama, in speaking about war, touched on Mahatma Gandhi, the father of independent India, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, who were both icons of non-violent resistance. Mr. Obama praised them, saying, "The love that they preached--their fundamental faith in human progress--that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey."

At the same, he also justified the dispatch of an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, arguing that non-violence cannot solve every problem.

"As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."

Mr. Obama reasoned that a non-violent movement "could not have halted Hitler's armies." On the same note, he stressed, "Negotiations cannot convince Al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

I do not believe, either, that Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist group fathered by Osama bin Ladin, can be faced down with bare hands. I only wonder if Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a single group of insurgents in Afghanistan, really pose "threats" to the United States. Are they so powerful that the nation has no option but to unleash its overwhelming military might? The United States could surely respond in a more measured way.

How many innocent Afghans have been killed and injured by U.S. air strikes? The United States must reflect on this reality, which has provoked Afghan antipathy toward the United States and Americans, and bred new terrorists.

In fact, Al-Qaeda was originally seeded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and others, which gathered Mujahadeen, or Muslim holy warriors, from various locations in the Middle East and trained them by providing weapons and financial assistance in order to battle the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet forces.

I once heard from an Afghan who was visiting Hiroshima to take part in a training program that the majority of Afghan citizens simply want to live in peace with their families and have sufficient food to eat. Because of the fighting, though, as well as drought, they are forced to abandon their land and become refugees. Swayed by armed groups, they take up weapons themselves and turn to fighting as a means of sustaining their lives. A sizable number of American troops being sent to Afghanistan have also become soldiers to secure a livelihood.

Military force alone cannot bring about peace in Afghanistan unless the rampant corruption among the government leaders and bureaucrats is rooted out and assistance in civilian sectors is provided for the reconstruction of the nation so the residents can become independent.

President Obama again stressed in his speech that the effort to seek "a world without nuclear weapons" is an urgent task and that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is "a centerpiece of my foreign policy." Though this position draws my strong support, what I find of concern is the fact that U.S. liberals, who have been champions of nuclear disarmament and abolition, are putting some distance between themselves and the president due to his decision to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, U.S. conservatives have intensified their criticism, even saying that Mr. Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize will prove an impediment in nuclear negotiations. The Afghan War has now been transformed from "Bush's war" to "Obama's war." If it devolves into "a second Vietnam War," as some U.S. citizens fear, President Obama's influence on global issues cannot help but grow weaker and the path toward nuclear disarmament and abolition will regrettably recede into the distance.

(Originally published on December 12, 2009)