Was it given to Barack Obama as an individual or as U.S. President?

According to the Douglas Harper Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001, the word “peace” was first used in 1140 AD to mean “cessation of hostilities”. It was spelt “pace.” In 1200 it also started to mean peace of mind while the modern spelling was introduced around 1500.

Some days ago, “peace” finally passed into oblivion after holding forth for around eight centuries. Until October 9, when United States President Barack Obama was declared winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it used to exclusively mean “absence of hostilities.” But no longer. It can now mean a “state of war” too.

As President of the United States, Nobel Peace laureate Obama has been unable to contain leave alone resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, his troops are still very much present in Iraq and there is no sign that the U.S. and allied troops are in any position of control in Afghanistan.

The much-enlightened Norwegian Nobel committee that awarded Mr. Obama said he was chosen for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Dialogue and negotiations are (his) preferred instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts, it said.

No doubt Mr. Obama brought in an air of sanity after his war-mongering predecessor George W. Bush. He warmed the heart of most of the Muslim world with a direct appeal to make a new beginning in relations with the West. Instead of belligerent statements aimed at Iran by the Bush administration, Mr. Obama proposed dialogue.

All the actions, interestingly, were a reversal of decisions taken by the previous Bush administration. In other words, one U.S. administration stoked fire all round while the next one attempts to douse them. Where does that leave Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama as individuals since the Nobel committee has chosen one of them?

When in office, George W. Bush was considered President first and so is Mr. Obama now. Mr Obama may have a style of functioning different from that of Mr. Bush, may be more endearing in his approach to conflicts around the world but ultimately he is functioning as the U.S. President.

In the nine months since Mr. Obama took office, it has become increasingly clear that a change of individual at the helm does not translate into an immediate change in fundamental U.S. foreign policy, the rhetoric notwithstanding. The reason is obvious. Policies may be mouthed by individuals, but it is conceptualised by an establishment of which the President is only a part, though a significant one. If Mr. Obama or Mr. Bush were tin pot dictators presiding over a banana republic one could have possibly expected a complete about-turn with a change of guard. But then, the U.S. prides itself as the world’s sole hyper power with a reputed superstructure, an advanced economy and a supersized military. As the world’s dominant democracy, decisions cannot be entirely unilateral and on the whims of an individual even if it happens to be Mr. Obama.

Take the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When Mr. Obama was installed President in January this year, the Gaza strip was under siege, the Israeli government was constructing settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the Fatah and Hamas were engaged in an internecine battle. Until now, nothing has changed, despite the conflict ostensibly being on top of his agenda. In the first flush of victory, Mr. Obama called on Israel to freeze settlements in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem. But in September, the President backtracked after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nentanyahu. They had merely discussed the modalities for a possible pause in settlement activity, not a total freeze as the US President had demanded.

As for relations between the Hamas and Fatah, not only have they not reconciled, they are now even more opposed to each other, thanks to the U.S. pressure on Fatah chief and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to recommend putting off the discussion in the United Nations on the Goldstone report which has indicted Israel for its attack on Gaza last year. The Gaza strip meanwhile continues to reel under a humanitarian crisis. Peace is a far cry in the region.

As writer and journalist Robert Fisk pithily remarked in a piece in current.com, “For the first time in history, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to a man who has achieved nothing — in the faint hope that he will do something good in the future. That’s how bad things are. That’s how explosive the Middle East has become.”

In Iraq, U.S. troops have moved out of the cities, but they are very much present on the outskirts waiting to move in if necessary. A timetable for withdrawal exists, but that is until two years later. In the meantime, violence continues. Bombs regularly go off killing civilians across the country.

Afghanistan is no different. Mr. Obama has in fact accepted the failure of U.S. attempts to weave in a viable nation free of violence. More troops are necessary, conceded the U.S. President. The Taliban continues to target U.S. and NATO troops besides perceived enemies, including the Indian embassy, at will. Worse, the Taliban has spread to Pakistan where its fighters are deeply involved in an escalating insurgency. Violence is clearly spreading.

As for the diplomatic offensive against Iran, the Obama administration has decided to hold fire for a while. But the underlying tensions continue. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has unequivocally stated his country will not abandon its nuclear programme to appease western critics.

In this context, was the Nobel Prize for Mr. Obama as an individual or as U.S. President? Since Mr. Obama is organically linked to the presidency the corollary is that the prize has gone both to Mr. Obama and the U.S. presidency. In which case, yes, it was George W. Bush who led the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but in his role as U.S. President. In other words, one U.S. President embarks on a contentious invasion against the country while the successor gets a peace prize even as fighting goes on unabated there with over 100,000 civilians killed.

For those who argue that a U.S. president who mouths peace is fit to win a Nobel, does it not follow that another one responsible for a controversial invasion is a fit candidate for prosecution?

If logic is one casualty, another is peace itself. Unless of course, after the latest Nobel prize, one redefines peace to mean “a continual state of war.”

(K.S. Dakshina Murthy was formerly Editor of Aljazeera based in Doha, Qatar)

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