WAR and PEACE - OBAMA, LIU and NOBEL
DEC 10th 2009
Perhaps this paradox can give yet another chance
to open the doors of perception in a confused world. I had hoped that
at least Barack Obama, a man for whom my respect is profound, could
make a speech about war and peace without recourse to the word evil,
but I was mistaken.
By using that word, Obama leapt from the context of practical
leadership in the 21st century, the allied defence and enforcement of
an international social contract and the
rule of law, to the realms of philosophy and religion without so much
as a nod to psychology or psychiatry on the way.
As a student of the above over the past 70 years and as one who
respects the steps taken by many to enhance our understanding and
improve our application, who would be the first to claim their is a
connection between all these sciences, I nevertheless hold it
inadvisable to mix them randomly in the same public address destined to
reach a global audience whose cultures and environments are so varied
in historical development and current expression.
The complete text of Obama's speech to the Nobel Committee is at the
link below (unless moved later).
but I wish to take the paragraph below to see if it is possible to use
believe to be a potential source of misunderstanding for the very
<< I make this statement mindful of what Martin
Luther King 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's work, I am living testimony to the
moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak - nothing
passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and
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 is sometimes
necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history;
the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.>>
In that last
sentence, Obama himself comes close to correcting his
mistake. However it leaves us with an ambiguity. Does he apply the
limits of reason and the imperfections of man to the acts of both sides
in such conflicts? Or does he imply that evil is no more than an
imperfection of man and the limits of reason, manifest in those whose
purposes he finds it his duty to thwart by means which may reach to the
lethal in the last resort?
The use of the
word 'evil' is sometimes applied to individuals who have
indeed reached a state of dysfunction and damage where the very notion
of empathy is absent. The symptoms can be observed in animals as well
as humans. There is no doubt that to repair an animal or human who has
developed such symptoms is not easy, as the state they are in, which
may relate to embedded genetic propensities as well as lifetime
environmental history, will have elements of distrust and fear that
militate against the acceptance that any help from others can be more
than a trick to get through their defenses with a view to their
destruction or enslavement.
classification 'evil' is applied with more confidence to groups,
gangs, and movements that exhibit antisocial behaviour. These are
considered to be more accountable than a troubled individual
unsupported in a desperate and lonely struggle to survive. Any group
formed to pursue common aims has perforce to discuss these and be
conscious, at least to some shared level of perception, of the
consequences of their actions. Those who accept a society of fellowship
under a rule of law, a social contract enforced by a sovereign
authority, a civilized society with some security, transparency and
freedoms, will class as evil any association that deliberately sets out
to limit, reduce or destroy that status locally or nationally. Criminal
gangs, mafias etc. feeding off economies they cannot or will not join
legitimately, fall into this category, though they may attract and
include among their number the desperate, fearful and lonely
individuals who find shelter in their ranks.
When it comes to
insurgents who conspire together in ruthless actions,
here again here will be those who lead and those who follow. The
leaders will be driven by mixtures of personal ambition and competitive
instinct to maintain their status amongst their family, tribe,
followers etc. The followers will be driven by more basic survival
instincts. Then there are the suicide bombers who are promised either
protection for their families, virgins in the afterlife or at least
hero status a servant of a higher power or, in some cases, just a
choice of death. Here we class as 'evil' any action that is
deliberately designed to target civilians or include them without
regard, including in particular those who train and arm the suicide
bombers and send them off as guided missiles
So we can agree
with Obama, with the above qualifications, that evil
exists in the world because we say it does. It exists in all countries.
We use the word to describe certain sorts of behaviour. Because of the
rebellious violence that ends in the death of innocents when avenues of
peaceful democracy, however imperfect, are offered, we can say it
exists in Afghanistan and Iraq; but if ever there were countries where
it is scarcely surprising that such behaviour is common it must indeed
be those where every vestige of civilized existence as been blasted to
hell for decades and every means of legitimate self-support in
agriculture, commerce and industry has been destroyed.
demand are the forces that sustain all life from the moment
a child is born and a mother's breast answers the need. The demands for
oil and drugs are in the hands of the developed world. Whereas oil has
many uses beyond the recreational it could well be argued that our
careless consumption has already reached the level of abuse. In the
case of drugs all use beyond the prescribed medical is decidedly abuse.
The violence in Mexico, let alone Afghanistan, is directly attributable
to demand in the United States. This is but one reason of many for
which I would advise President Obama to stay off the subject of evil
and his role of Commander in Chief of the 'forces of good' in any
global battle. The reason we should stay the course in Afghanistan is
one of pragmatic necessity to make up for past mistakes and put in
place a potentially self-renewing, sustainable (within an international
Why do we make
so many mistakes? Let us look at recent comments on Iraq at the Chilcot
A senior official has told the inquiry into the
Iraq war that "amateurs" who did not have the experience to perform
were put into key roles in the country.
Lt Gen Frederick Viggers, Britain's senior military
representative in Iraq, said lives had been lost as a result.
said senior officials, including ministers, needed more training to
deal with the complexities involved in mounting an invasion.
The trouble is
rather, in my view, too many professionals.
Professional politicians, professional soldiers, professional
businessmen. They all knew their own job but the job in hand was not
one where any of them had any experience. It would be great to give
people advance training in rebuilding an Iraq or Afghanistan on new
lines, using the inherent talents of the nationals so as to build a new
open, inclusive society, starting with the locations and materials they
rebuilding and grafting new structures.
That was never
possible, there being no such training ground. The possible job was to
imagine how to make
sure there was employment for all and security and respect for
authority, until gradually leaders emerged and structures consolidated.
This was a job, protected by soldiers and sanctioned by politicians,
for amateurs, for people with imagination and a love of the task and of
the world that would give them the understanding of what they had never
trained for. Above all it required the return to Iraq, as to
Afghanistan, of all the talented people who had fled from either the
tyranny or the violence and fanaticism and denial of basic human
rights. Iraq is still an inhospitable environment for most returning
There are people
who can do what they know because they have practised
it, and there are people who can do things that they, and perhaps
nobody else either, have done before. I am sure General Viggers was
driven up the wall having the schemes of professional western
politicians dished out for professional soldiers to implement in Iraq,
and the same surely happened for the Americans in both Iraq and
Afghanistan. It is clear that until men arrived on the scene who were
more than just soldiers and politicians, namely Petraeus and
McChrystal, men who were amateurs before they were professionals and
transcend the limitations of the trades, there was no connection with a
So, I would
agree with General Viggers when he says:
"My sense was we had held the line. We contained what
was unfolding chaos,"
And asked what
lessons had been learnt, he replied: "A raft of
lessons - few of them learnt, I sense."
My advice to
America, get off your charger of the Champion of Good
against Evil. If you are feeling Biblical, I recommend a passage on
moats, eyes and beams. America's appetites for economic growth and
consumption are the source of environmental problems that risk many
more wars in the future unless restrained. Right now you have brave
soldiers doing a tough, necessary
job, opposing a violent, disturbed mix of confused tribal people with
nowhere to go and nothing else to do. They are being exploited by
international terrorists of al Qaeda who also have nowhere to go and
whose chance of integration into civil society is nil. These people can
perhaps merit the classification of evil more than many others. Many
are going to die, both guilty and innocent on both sides.
The Nobel Peace Committee have
given your President their Peace Prize because they know he is working
for peace on terms that the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan can
live with. The prize is an international statement that this aim is
understood. To walk away would not achieve it, and in Afghanistan the
position must be resolved, not kept going for another half century.
Forget about the idea of a 'Just War', necessity is the only criteria.
What we have here is a war it is necessary to finish. Then, if you
could turn your attention to Copenhagen, there is a chance you could
avoid starting so many in the future.
OCTOBER 8th 2010
Here we go again, and this time the paradox rears its head in a
different angle. The Nobel Committe awards the Peace Prize to a human
rights activist in China.
It praised Mr Liu for his "long and non-violent struggle" and
highlighted its belief in a "close connection between human rights and
I would say
there is, on the contrary, an undeniably close connection between human
rights and war. The western nations have a history of going to war over
human rights and even starting wars over human rights. Whatever we may
have to say about human rights in China, the lack of them is closely
associated with peace in that country and very possibly in the
regioning wars. We may regret this, even deplore it, but it is a fact.
Mr Liu's indefatigable campaigning for a multi-party democracy may be
admirable, but human rights and democracy and multi-party politics are
three distinct ideas that should not be confused. It is pretty clear
that Mr Liu, now in jail, was not given what we in Europe or the US
would consider a fair trial, but that is yet another issue. This award
is the Nobel Peace Prize, and
for the life of me it seems we have gone
from one absurdity to the extreme of another.
Obama was given the award before he had the chance to contribute much
peace, Mr Liu's contribution to peace is at this point unfathomable.
The award is unlikely to bring any more peace within China or between
China and other countries. The management of China, a huge country with
a common written language but no universally spoken common language, is
not a subject on which the Nobel Committee is a notable authority.
They justify this political award by saying: "If China wanted to avoid
such an award being given to Mr Liu they would have had to do something
for peace themselves. They seem to have overlooked the fact that it was
in the cause of keeping the peace they locked this guy up without
giving him the grandstand of a fair trial. Perhaps we have a language
problem here and the word 'Peace' means something else in Norwegian. No
doubt Mr Liu deserves a prize for something and his family can use the
money if they ever see it, but this prize at this time for these
I have to say also that although I am not a Roman Catholic I would
certainly not give a prize of any sort to the pioneer of in vitro
fertilization, which really is the last thing we need on this planet.
But Nobel did give us dynamite, so it's not all bad news.
NOVEMBER 20th 2010
Here's a good commentatry from
Kerry Brown, a Senior Fellow at Chatham House's