When the Nobel Committee awarded President Obama the Peace Prize in 2009, the world assumed that the Committee was making a political statement. The New York Times wrote that awarding President Obama the prize was “a (barely) implicit condemnation of [George W.] Bush’s presidency.” Indeed, President Obama had held the office for only nine months when the Nobel Committee announced he had won the Peace Prize. That’s hardly enough time to change the world. Awarding the Peace Prize to President Obama was supposed to herald a change in American foreign policy.
Four years later, we can reevaluate. President Obama has presided over a presidency that has become more secretive and potentially deadlier than the Bush administration. Under President Obama, prosecutions under the Espionage Act of 1917 have gone up as the White House has aggressively tamped down on insiders going to the press. At the same time, the administration selectively leaks positive information to the press, as when “high level officials” told The New York Times in 2012 that the U.S. had placed the Stuxnet virus in computer systems controlling Iranian nuclear facilities.
Consider also the abhorrent prosecution of Bradley Manning, accused of giving classified information to WikiLeaks. While disclosing classified information is indeed a crime, Manning’s mistreatment while in custody has been abominable. Even though he hasn’t been convicted of a crime yet, Manning has been subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment for any number of pretextual reasons; for example, Manning was stripped to his underwear and deprived of his glasses—which he needs to read—except for an hour a day, all under the heading of “suicide watch.” A U.N. Special Rapporteur investigating the situation found that Manning’s treatment was a human rights violation.
In the last month, we’ve learned that the Justice Department under President Obama—heir to the same legacy as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela—prepared a memo outlining the legal reasoning for drone strikes anywhere around the world. That the President could claim the power to assassinate anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, so long as the person is an “imminent” threat to the United States (where “imminent” is so broad that it could encompass someone thinking about attacking the United States) is outrageous. People are placed on this kill list on the say-so of an unknown cabal making decisions out of the public eye with unknown evidence and no discernible process. It’s more or less everything the Constitution was designed to prevent.
Looking back, the Obama administration didn’t usher in a new era of foreign policy: it just ushered in a more secretive era of foreign policy. President Obama’s legacy may look less like Nelson Mandela and more like Richard Nixon. It’s hard to do “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” when you’re blowing people up by remote control from three thousand miles away.