Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Maybe U.S. presidents shouldn't get peace prizes

Maybe U.S. presidents shouldn't get peace prizes

 

This morning I wrote a package of two articles for the Daily News about President Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize he accepted in Oslo this morning. You can read the main story here -- in a sidebar I argued that the president is probably a lousy choice for a peace award:

 When you think of President Theodore "Carry a Big Stick" Roosevelt, "peace" usually isn't the first word that jumps to mind. After riding up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, he was a hawkish president who greatly expanded the U.S. Navy, fomented a revolution in Panama to clear the way for the American-owned canal there, and, after leaving the White House, was the leading proponent for an early U.S. entry to World War I.

The act that Roosevelt won the Nobel for - brokering a peace deal between Japan and Russia in 1905 - is thought by some historians to have encouraged Japanese expansionism that led ultimately to Pearl Harbor.

Hey, I didn't say which president. You know what? I hate to say it, but sitting American presidents are never a good choice for the Nobel Peace Prize, period. Since 1901, the honor has been bestowed on three White House occupants. Roosevelt was arguably the worst choice of all, as author James Bradley wrote convincingly in an op-ed that ran recently on the New York Times and on the Huffington Post:

And that was as Roosevelt may have wanted it: after all, it was he who had so fervently encouraged the Japanese to think in "Monroe Doctrine" terms about their continent. No doubt, the Japanese, and their military, had ambitions with regard to Asia. But such aims were undoubtedly encouraged by Roosevelt-his bogus even-handedness in the Russo-Japanese peace process perhaps the most potent evidence of his bias. Oslo may not have known the truth -- and most Americans still don't know the truth, either -- but the cost of Roosevelt's subterfuge would be profound.

Teddy would not be around on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese, borrowing straight from the Russo-Japanese playbook, attacked Pearl Harbor in order to protect their sphere of influence. Nor would he be around for the millions of deaths to come as war raged throughout the Pacific. Such are the long fuses of history.

The second president to win the Nobel was Woodrow Wilson, for his work in brokering the Treaty of Versailles. The deeply flawed treaty -- which not only was rejected here in the U.S. but was a miserable failure toward stopping the seeds of World War II -- did include an admirably and real push for national self-determination. But Wilson was hardly a man of peace or national self-determination here in the Western Hemisphere, where he sent troops into Haiti, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, seeking to bend those nations to follow America's will. (Another president who received the Nobel, Jimmy Carter. was recognized for his post-presidential work).

Then we have Barack Obama. His mission today in Oslo was a no-win situation -- he couldn't accept the award and ignore the escalation in Afghanistan, so he tried to justify it, resulting in a speech completely drained of moral authority or power. The president did say one thing with which I agree whole-heartedly:

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

The world needs uncompromising fighters for real peace and for meaningful justice -- people like a Martin Luther King -- who can go to Oslo and remind the world of what we must eternally strive to make it. Such worthy Nobel recepients are truth-tellers, and people they are telling that truth to are the world's kings and potentates and, yes, the American president -- a job that is engineered for compromise, and disappointments. If the world is to become a better place, we need more people who risk jail, risk pain, and risk death -- people like Dr. King or Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi -- have done, for the eternal ideals of peace that are uncompromising. The Nobel Peace Prize can be a valuable tool to remind us who these people are, and that you are going to find them in the streets, not in the White House.

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Will Bunch
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