The Last 100 Days: Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize edition

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
President Obama after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma from Nobel committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland at City Hall in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Photo: John McConnico/Pool/Reuters)

Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is runningThe Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his last months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. We will also look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.

It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.

And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.  

And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.

In this ninth installment, we look at Obama’s legacy on the use of military force abroad on the 15th anniversary of the official beginning of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

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Seven years ago this week, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award he certainly did not seek, he arguably did not deserve, and that did almost nothing to shape his approach to using military force throughout his consequential two terms in office.

In fact, Obama now seems poised to hand his successor even more war-making discretion than he himself inherited from George W. Bush. This is thanks in large part to a Congress that has proved unwilling or unable to shoulder its constitutional responsibility to authorize — or curtail — U.S. military action ordered by the president.

Obama has now been at war longer than any other president, including his idol Abraham Lincoln. In addition to being the day a new Nobel Peace Prize winner is announced, Oct. 7 also marks the 15th anniversary of the official start of the invasion of Afghanistan, America’s longest war, and a good time to consider Obama’s record and his contradictory legacy.

Obama was the third sitting president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Teddy Roosevelt earned one in 1906 for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson got one in 1920 for his efforts to end World War I and build the League of Nations, a failed forerunner of sorts to the United Nations. Jimmy Carter won in 2002 for his campaign to find “peaceful solutions to international conflicts” while promoting human rights and economic development. As vice president, Al Gore won in 2007 for his advocacy against climate change.

While Obama’s Nobel was a surprise, the fact that it would turn out to have little, if any, effect on his subsequent decision making should not have been a shock. After all, in one of the most important foreign policy speeches of his eight years in office, Obama told the world that the prize would not constrain him.

Barack Obama delivers the Nobel Peace Prize Lecture at the award ceremony in Oslo. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

“I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally, if necessary, to defend my nation,” the president told his Norwegian hosts and the Nobel Committee in his December 2009 acceptance speech in Oslo.

The committee had given the award in recognition of “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” a reflection of the historic nature of his election, and his efforts to restore the United States’ tarnished global standing.

But Obama blended a tribute to icons of nonviolent struggle like Martin Luther King and Gandhi with an uncompromising defense of military action as sometimes being “not only necessary but morally justified.”

He also bluntly condemned those who harbor a “reflexive suspicion of America” and had forgotten what they owe to the world’s only remaining superpower.

“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms,” the president said.

Months before the speech, Obama had determined that he would support the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And the White House response to news of the award swung from surprise to a heavily political effort to distance Obama from its potential downside.

According to multiple inside accounts, it fell to then press secretary Robert Gibbs to place a 6 a.m. presidential wake-up call with the news. Obama’s reaction fell a bit short of undiluted pleasure. “Gibbs, what the hell are you talking about?” he said, according to senior aides and an account of the conversation recounted in former top adviser David Axelrod’s book “Believer: My 40 Years in Politics.”

According to Axelrod, the announcement was “truly startling,” and “more of a surreal challenge than a cause of celebration,” because of questions like “What, exactly, was he getting the award for?”

The Obamas acknowledge well-wishers from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo before attending the Nobel banquet, Dec. 10, 2009. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Axelrod wrote that he braced for “a deluge of questions about the president’s deservedness from a cynical media and what would certainly be an incredulous opposition.” (He was right: One observer groused that it was the equivalent of a lifetime-achievement Oscar for a child star.)

Once the sense of confused wonder wore off, Axelrod wrote, Obama decreed that his acceptance speech would focus on his role as commander in chief in order to avoid giving Republicans an opening. “I don’t want to give our friends on the other side a chance to run this One World stuff against us,” the president told aides.

In public and private, the White House played down “this One World stuff” — portraying Obama as humbled and surprised as anyone else, while minimizing the historic event.

“Malia said it best, ‘Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo’s birthday!’ And then Sasha added, ‘Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up,’” Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden. The award and the first family dog’s birthday got equal billing on the White House website too.

Antiwar sentiment helped to sweep Obama into office. But while his campaign happily harnessed the national mood, he himself always rejected any sort of pacifist mantle. During the 2008 election, he was the only candidate to explicitly threaten to violate an ally’s sovereign territory to kill the architect of the 9/11 attacks.

Then presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., answers a question in his second debate with Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 7, 2008. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

“If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out,” Obama said in his Oct. 7, 2008, debate with Arizona Sen. John McCain. “We will kill bin Laden.”

McCain and Obama’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, repeatedly condemned that message throughout the campaign.

Even Obama’s famous October 2002 speech against the Iraq War included a vigorous defense of the use of force, from the Civil War to World War II to the mustering of military might that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I don’t oppose all wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

What he is also not opposed to is acting without explicit congressional authority, as shown both by the Libya campaign of 2011 and the escalating but undeclared war against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.

Obama contends that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against al-Qaida covers ISIS, which emerged out of al-Qaida in Iraq. In February 2015, he submitted a new, ISIS-specific AUMF to Congress, where Republican leaders have declined to debate, modify or vote on the measure. That inaction serves as tacit approval of Obama’s controversial reliance on the 2001 legislation.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, now the Democratic vice presidential nominee, has called the White House’s argument an “Alice in Wonderland” position, while scolding his colleagues for political cowardice.

“Members of Congress have chosen to avoid a vote on the theory that either a yes or no vote carries political risk. In my view, this is a shameful abdication of responsibility,” Kaine declared mid-May at the Virginia Military Institute graduation. “What could be more immoral than ordering troops to risk their lives in a war that Congress was unwilling to publicly support?”

Obama has expanded the battlefield in other ways. Early in his tenure, he waged unprecedented cyberwarfare against Iran’s nuclear program. He embraced and expanded America’s drone warfare, even becoming the first occupant of the Oval Office known to have targeted for assassination a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen.

Obama’s use of drones has unsettled some of his critics on the left. In a memorable August 2012 parody video of the Gotye hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” dubbed “Obama That I Used to Know,” one singer says, “Sometimes I think that Peace Prize winners shouldn’t have a kill list.”

Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. (Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/AP)

He has bragged about unleashing U.S. military might in seven countries, from his early “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, to drone strikes in Yemen, the intervention in Libya, sending elite commandos to hunt for extremists in Somalia, ordering the bin Laden raid in Pakistan, redeploying forces to Iraq, and a small-scale invasion of Syria by special operators. (Last year, he portrayed Republicans as warmongers whose policies would have dragged the country into — this is awkward — seven wars.)

In May 2013, Obama gave a major counterterrorism address at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., where he offered a rare glimpse into his personal misgivings about the security apparatus he controlled and will pass on to his successor.

In his most striking remarks, Obama called for steps to get the United States off the perpetual wartime footing of the post-9/11 era.

“This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama said. “That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

Three years later, a detailed Yahoo News assessment of his counterterrorism promises and proposals found them largely unfulfilled.

Republicans have repeatedly knocked Obama for not using force, notably to enforce his “red line” warning to Syria not to use chemical weapons or for not projecting the kind of strength necessary to dissuade Russia from seizing parts of Ukraine and annexing its Crimea region.

In this image made from video provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), a child sits in an ambulance after being pulled out of a building hit by an airstirke in Aleppo, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo: Aleppo Media Center via AP)

As the death toll from Syria’s bloody civil war has crept up, in some estimates, to more than 400,000, a growing chorus of bipartisan voices — including that of Clinton, his endorsed successor — has said America must do more.

Obama shows no sign of heeding those appeals and has suggested that they have roots in politics. “There’s a difference between running for president and being president,” he said at an October 2015 press conference when pressed on Clinton’s calls for a “no-fly zone” in Syria.

White House officials say that Obama sees calls for greater use of force as reflexive, not thought through, with risks of serious consequences that could make the situation worse on the ground. And they point to Russia’s invasion of Georgia during George W. Bush’s presidency as evidence that the roots of such aggression lie in Moscow, not Washington.

GOP critics have long portrayed the president’s supposed reluctance to use force as an overcompensation for Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — an overabundance of caution from an administration that supposedly wants to “lead from behind.” The White House disputes that characterization but describes Obama as having been less reckless than his predecessor, reflecting an internal motto: “Don’t do stupid s***.”

It’s clear, though, that Obama isn’t happy to hand his successor ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after boasting that he ended one and would wrap up the other during his tenure in office. His administration has engaged in verbal contortions in an apparent effort to play down the open-ended anti-ISIS deployment: Americans may find themselves in combat, their argument goes, but are not there on a combat mission.

Standing with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, left, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, at the White House, Obama announced that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan into 2017 in light of the still “precarious” security situation in the war-ravaged country, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

At the same time, figures released by the Pentagon speak to the scale of the military operation to wipe out that rampaging death cult. As of Oct. 4, the U.S.-led coalition had conducted 10,048 strikes in Iraq against ISIS and an additional 5,433 in Syria. Three Americans have been killed in combat.

As for the Afghan war, Obama had promised in May 2014 to bring it “to a responsible end,” pledging to bring home all but a handful of American soldiers by the end of 2016. By July 2016, he had reassessed his plans, announcing that he would leave about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan at the end of his second term.

In his Dec. 10, 2009, Nobel speech, Obama envisioned modern conflict as “wars within nations,” sometimes feeding off secessionist or ethnic conflict, and imprisoning civilians “in unending chaos” — not a bad description of Syria. And he had acknowledged that he did not have “a definitive solution to the problems of war.”

In a recent interview with New York magazine, the president seemed to acknowledge his mission-not-quite-accomplished.

“I think America will continue to have work to do in finding this balance between not elevating every terrorist attack into a full-blown war but not either leaving ourselves exposed to attacks or, alternatively, pretending as if we can just take shots wherever we want, whenever we want, and not be answerable to anybody,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is to move the needle in the right direction, to set some trends in the right direction. But there’s gonna be a lot more work to do.”

Correction: This story initially omitted Teddy Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize. Obama was the third sitting president to win the award, not the second.

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