President Obama speaking to the Nobel Prize Committee

As the season has arrived in which “Peace on Earth” fills the airwaves and resonates from church choirs, the recent choice of President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize becomes ironic as well as iconic. The icon is obvious, as no president since John F. Kennedy has elicited such fanfare at his entry into office. As the chairman of the Nobel committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, introduced President Obama, it was clear that in part the real choice was the man who pledged to reverse the isolationist and publicly entrenched private sectoring of George W. Bush. Had our previous president not been the bearer of two made-for-Hollywood wars in the guise of a nebulous “War on Terror,” Obama would have had to wait his turn. The irony is manifold. American dissatisfaction with the costly war in Iraq led to a political surge for the Democrats for a change; the man who pledged to end the war mongering is still saddled with the two wars he did not start. On the home front, the financial tsunami he inherited now tarnishes virtually every attempt to pull the economy out of its cross-the-boards harm from the combustable engine of Wall Street to the reckless drivers on Main Street.

The liberals and centrists who voted to give hope a chance have all too soon decided not to give it much of a chance. Those who actually prefer to call themselves liberals no doubt hoped that Obama was just politicking when he touted centrist positions to secure some of those Red State votes. But the man from Illinois, who kicked off his run with the symbolic capital of an earlier president-to-be from Illinois, is decidedly centrist, the mad ravings of vanity pouting Glenn Beck and publicity whoring Sarah Palin notwithstanding. If you want to probe the postmodern meaning of irony, just listen to what President Obama said about war in being honored as a man of peace:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But 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. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. 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.

The irony is not that Obama has changed his political philosophy, but that many of those who elected him want him to be something else. It is easy to forget that while individual may choose to turn the other cheek, even at the risk of being killed, leaders of nations must look at danger full face. That is what Abe Lincoln did when the civil war threatened to split our country less than a century into its history. Had Lincoln not, men and women with the color of Obama’s skin might still be picking cotton down south. No one should doubt Obama’s resolve to change the way the United States interacts with the rest of the world. The “my-way-or-the-low-way” of GWB (and I do not mean the levels of the George Washington Bridge in New York) has been replaced by eloquence with substance and superseded with a moral stance that deserves the kind of recognition the Nobel Committee provided.

In today’s New York Times editorial, which praises the change in tone, there is an interesting line worth thinking about:

We’ll leave it to the philosophers to debate what is and what is not a just war. But we agree that this war is a very difficult but necessary one.

While I enjoy reading philosophy from all periods (well perhaps mostly from the past as some of the more recent pondering knocks me on my Derridaire with its linguistic twists), I think that we should not leave this question to the philosophers. If “they” had a practical solution, then philosophers would be kings. Look at the surviving kings and read about the ancient ones and that notion will quickly be extinguished. War is a life and death issue that often gets reduced to lofty moral debates without replacing the life blood spilled. Our current wars are political forays that stick to our skin like tar. The more you try to rub it off, the more it sticks.

In a decision that I imagine was one of the most difficult he will make as president, a man who wanted to bring people together had little choice but to add fuel to an existing fire. Some 30,000 additional U.S. military, plus a much smaller number of men and women from allies, will soon be arriving in Afghanistan. Is this a “just” war? It is certainly not just a war, but part of a perceived axis of evil that no longer singles out foreign rulers but rather the loud mouth terror mongers who slip in and out of remote enclaves and bomb their way into the news. The original intent of bringing to justice the terrorists who masterminded the 9/11 attack has mushroomed into an “us vs. them” witch hunt that has only increased rather than mitigated threats of terrorism. To be sure, the chance of major terrorist attacks in the United States have been greatly diminished, but Iraq today is far less stable and safe for its citizens than it was under the dictator Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan remains as corrupt and uncontrollable as it was during the spate of regimes that led to the Soviet occupation and anarchic aftermath.

The problem is that the presence of American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan is thought to be patriotically “just” for us because our citizens are not being bombed at home. Yet, at the same time it is “unjust” in that those soldiers who are dying tend to be from the more marginalized classes in our society. Just as born-again hawks George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did not serve in Vietnam, the sacrifice in these current foreign wars is unequal and morally unjust. For the people of Iraq and Afghanistan it might best be said that the horrors of war fall on the just as well as the unjust. As President Obama noted in his speech, most of the victims of our current wars and the violence associated with our actions are civilians. When members of your family are blown to pieces just for buying vegetables in a market or praying in a mosque or standing in line to get a job, then none of these conflicts can “just” be a war. One hardly needs a philosopher to tell you that. One does need a conscience, and that is precisely what President Obama calls for in his closing remarks:

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school — because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Daniel Martin Varisco

This commentary has been reproduced on History News Network.