The Nobel committee baited a trap for Barack Obama--and on Thursday he tumbled right in.
The committee is made up of five Norwegian politicians, three of them from left-of-centre political parties. From the moment the award was announced, it was apparent that the committee hoped to achieve two things:
- To compel the new American President to submit to limits on his future use of force. Would Obama like to read news stories that opened, "Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama today launched pre-emptive air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities?"
- To intervene in American domestic politics. Since 2001, the Nobel committee has honored three Americans: Jimmy Carter in 2002, Al Gore in 2007, and now Obama. Could the message be more obvious?
Those objectives ought to have been utterly unacceptable to an American president.
He could not allow this small body of unaccountable people to impose restrictions on his power to make national security decisions in the American interest.
Nor could Obama properly allow a foreign body to insert itself into American politics in this way. Campaigning for the presidency, Obama vigorously criticized George W. Bush and his policies. That was normal. But to travel to a foreign country and lend himself to outsiders' criticism of his predecessor in return for a prestigious award--that would be shocking.
Yet in his Nobel address, Obama flunked both these basic political conditions.
Failure number one: "I believe that all nations--strong and weak alike--must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I--like any head of state--reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't."
Back in 2004, John Kerry was pummelled for suggesting that the legitimate use of force must meet a "global test." That test has now returned, in even more ominous form. What are these "standards" that Obama has in mind?
He gives us a clue. Since 1990, the United States has fought four wars: the Gulf War in 1991, Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003. Two--1991, 2001--were approved by the UN Security Council. Two--1999, 2003--were not. Guess which two wars Obama specifically mentions as legitimate? Guess which two he omits?
Failure number two: Obama indulged in repeated criticism of the Iraq war. "I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek . . . "
Well that's how he feels. Fine. Let him say it at West Point. In Oslo, the right answer is: "Nobody but me beats up my kid brother." Obama is leader and representative of the American state and nation, conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves.
In the ordinary course of events, a President Obama charged with management of the Iraq file would not have indulged in unnecessary recrimination. That would be pointless and dangerous for a president waiting to discover whether his own "surge" proves as successful as George Bush's did.
To be coaxed by a prize into reviving a domestic quarrel was unwise--and to conduct that quarrel on foreign ground was hugely inappropriate.
Few American conservatives share my negative assessment of the speech. Most were so pleased by the President's vigorous defence of the occasional need for force that they overlooked the speech's flaws.
It's a relief of course that Obama is not a pacifist, but that's a very low bar for an American president. His oath of office already requires him to "defend" the Constitution of the United States. What Obama did in Oslo was to submit to new preconditions for the exercise of that right of defence. At the same time, he denigrated one of the two wars currently being waged by the United States--and by the way, the more successful and strategically important one.
Barack Obama's foreign policy will depend on the votes of Republicans in Congress even more than Democrats. Why lecture them from abroad, at this juncture of all times, about his continuing disapproval of his predecessor's actions? Let him win his war first, then lecture later.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.