Barack Obama’s poisoned shirt

Godfrey Hodgson
13 October 2009

A Greek myth preserved in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses is a tale for the times.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the new century (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (29 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (31 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

"The United States: democracy, with interests" (14 August 2009)Nessus is a centaur - half-man, half-horse - shot by Hercules for his abuse of Deianeira. The centaur revenges himself by giving Deianeira, and through her Hercules, a poisoned shirt. When, years later, the strongman comes to wear it, his flesh is consumed. It takes an Olympian god to restore his superhuman vigour.

The Nobel peace prize awarded to Barack Obama on 9 October 2009 could become a shirt of Nessus for the United States president. The presumed intention is to recognise the generous and pacific tone of his speeches in Prague (on nuclear disarmament) and in Cairo (on building a new relationship with the Muslim world), and to encourage him in his search for world peace. Yet the prize's timing and its political context means that it is also unavoidably yet another political pressure - with consequences that could undermine its authors' wishes.

For the award is given at a very delicate moment, when the president is attempting to make up his mind how he can free America from the trap it has walked into in Afghanistan. After an agonising debate among his advisers, he has to decide whether to send the additional 40,000 troops his Afghan warlord, General Stanley McChrystal, has asked for; or move in the direction of a more limited counter-terrorist role, relying on raids by unmanned drones controlled in remote Nevada, to kill the families of al-Qaida suspects.

In this light, the Nobel prize mightily complicates Barack Obama's task. It exposes him to renewed charges of softness just when he can least afford them; its paradoxical effect could be to tip the balance into making him expand a complex and arguably doomed war.

A problem of timing

The Nobel peace prize is a mixed beast of its own. It has been given to genuine heroes (Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu among them), as well as to a variety of American presidents (including the super-macho Theodore Roosevelt, the super-exceptionalist Woodrow Wilson, as well as Jimmy Carter). Henry Kissinger - for all his gifts, no peacenik - was another co-recipient.

In 1939, it only just avoided the ultimate discrediting. The two leading candidates that year were Neville Chamberlain and...Adolf Hitler. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was also nominated. In the event, no prize was awarded. It is doubtful if it would have recovered had it been.

By a strange chance I was once peripherally involved in a campaign to give the prize to someone I thought absurdly unsuitable as a recipient. The truth is that the prize is awarded as a result of a process that is at once political and provincial. Norwegian notables acquire status by successfully promoting a candidacy that will find favour with an audience in which an admixture of ignorance of world affairs and anti-American prejudice can run strong. Many Norwegians understandably enjoy a ritual that draws international attention to their highly successful but globally peripheral nation.

In this case, the Norwegians have not helped the object of their favour. For the US president is in a difficult position on a range of fronts, even aside from the Afghan imbroglio. The anniversary of his election is only three weeks away, yet his achievement so far is meagre. The rescue of the economy, the essential precondition of all the other reforms he promised to achieve, is still in doubt. The dollar is falling. The public-insurance company that was at the heart of his healthcare reform, the highest priority of his domestic policies, is dead in the water. He cannot even close the prison-camp at Guantánamo Bay, the very first thing he promised to do when he entered the White House. And all around, he is assailed by reviving Republicans and cocky conservatives baying for his blood.

The pattern of abuse and insinuation directed at Obama from the more febrile of his adversaries began to take shape in the opposition to his healthcare proposals, and was further fuelled by his unwise (if understandably angry) response to the arrest of his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr, the Harvard University scholar, for breaking-and-entering his own home. Now the same galoots are loose again - on the net, on the airwaves and even in Congress.

Even by the standards already set, some of the local reactions to the news of the president's prize have been pretty extreme. Bloggers vied with one another to abuse the Norwegian committee as socialist ideologues and America-haters. The hireling ravers of Fox News excelled themselves. The former United Nations ambassador, John R Bolton - who admitted to fantasies of a virtual 9/11 of his own when he said "If you lost ten storeys today [from the United Nations building in New York], it wouldn't make a bit of difference" - denounced the prize as "preaching" to the United States.

An ominous precedent

There is a more moderate version of the critique of the peace prize on the grounds that it is simply premature: the president has not yet achieved enough to deserve it. It is true that Barack Obama's overtures and strategies are facing rejection and frustration across a wide front: most significantly, from the Israeli prime minister (snubbing Obama's demand for a freeze on West Bank settlements) and the Iranian president (intensifying nuclear plans and missile-tests, and brutally repressing critics of a fraudulent election).

There are plenty of difficulties elsewhere, from Iraq to North Korea to the Caucasus. But the absolutely critical theatre at the moment is Afghanistan - or what Washington insiders, with their tendency to reduce the world's complex realities to a knowing slogan, now call AfPak.

There too an election, the presidential vote on 20 August 2009 that saw the incumbent Hamid Karzai declared victor, was rigged. But in this case the United States is vitally involved, and it has accepted the outcome (notwithstanding the resignation on 30 September 2009 of the leading US diplomat Peter W Galbraith as deputy special representative to the UN secretary-general). A serious military predicament reinforces this political setback. It looks as though Obama's original thought was that he could deflect rightwing anger over the withdrawal from Iraq by offering the conservatives a military victory in Afghanistan, in part by following General David H Petraeus's "surge" strategy that allowed the (dubious) claim of "victory" in Iraq. But it is not clear that even this semblance of victory is available in Afghanistan.

Petraeus's protégé Stanley McChrystal has, to his great credit, avoided offering up to his president the usual Pentagon mélange of optimism and euphemism. Instead he has given his judgment with the bark off: in effect 40,000 more troops, or the war is lost. For my generation this is the "Westmoreland moment". We cannot forget that it was the realisation that half a million troops were not enough to win in Vietnam that doomed the bright hopes of the Lyndon B Johnson administration.

A key decision

It may be that the balance of forces in Washington will be unaffected by the Nobel peace prize. Barack Obama is both resilient and brave. His replacement of the Clinton administration's cautious "don't ask, don't tell" rule on gays in the military with open tolerance is the latest example.

The problem is that at this supremely tricky moment, the Nobel judges have chosen to provide fresh ammunition for the toxic charges levelled against the president. The damage is also to the relationship between America and Europe. Many Americans today do not trust Europe to be their ally. They seriously underestimate Europe's economic importance: few have any idea that the European Union's economy is bigger than that of the United States, or for example that Europe is a bigger trading partner with China than America is. Many believe the absurd neo-conservative propaganda about how Europe's population will soon be Muslim. The Nobel committee - even if it must have been the last thing it intended - has done nothing to dissolve, and indeed will have consolidated, negative American stereotypes about Europe.

Nessus intended his shirt to harm his enemy. His Norwegian imitators meant to help a friend. If Obama sends thousands more troops to Afghanistan, we will know that he was not deterred by their clumsy gesture. But we will also know that he did not deserve the prize. 


openDemocracy writers on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (9 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (21 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Peter DeShazo & Johanna Mendelson Forman, "Open veins, closed minds" (8 May 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (3 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

openDemocracy, "East-central Europe to Barack Obama: an open letter" (22 July 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (27 July 2009)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "The Baghdad bomb, the United Nations, and America" (20 August 2009)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData