Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Arafat's Nobel Moment

I wept twice because of Yitzhak Rabin. The second time was when I walked into the lobby of a hotel in Beijing and picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune reporting his murder by Yigal Amir. They were tears of sorrow and rage. Rabin was not like the vast majority of post-Biblical Jewish heroes, whose courage found expression in long-suffering piety or stoic resignation in the face of persecution. He was a warrior who had waded onto the battlefield clutching a rifle, brought home victory, and helped win us a nation. I couldn't believe a fellow Jew would rob our people of such a man.

The first time Rabin made me weep was when I saw this photo. As deracinated as I am from my faith, I imbibed enough to respond to the ultimate value of Torah: Shalom, Peace. To see Rabin grasping the hand of our enemy in the full knowledge that the world was watching broke down all my defenses of skepticism and cynicism. I wept to think that miracles just might be possible, that the worst demons of human nature could be conquered and the spirit of God be made to linger among nations. I didn't know that my first tears foreordained my second. If you look at that photo now you are peering at the moment Yitzhak Rabin signed his own death warrant.

In the year following this handshake the Nobel committee awarded Rabin, Arafat, and Shimon Peres the Nobel Peace Prize. It was keeping in the tradition of the Prize. Unlike military honors, the Peace Prize is not (at least it has not been in my political lifetime) awarded to someone deemed "worthy" of it. It is conferred with an openly instrumental purpose, to lend prestige and resources to individuals or organizations perceived as working to further the cause of peace. In this sense, the awarding of the Prize itself has always been an intrinsically political act calculated to have an effect on the trajectory of international affairs. It signals to the world that the awardee, whatever their background or past, is headed in a direction that the Committee would like to see the world follow. Such was the case when the Prize was awarded to Lech Walesa after Solidarity demonstrations in 1983, the Dalai Lama after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, and Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 after the repression of democratic government in Myanmar.

These last examples are transparently "worthy" figures, but the logic of the Prize does not admit to its being conferred so consistently to this ilk. If one's object is to spur people toward peace, one will occasionally have to acknowledge the redemptive efforts of those tainted by war. As tainted figures go, Yasser Arafat was an especially odious one, but in 1994, in the year after this inspiring handshake, it would have been hard to argue that he was moving in the wrong direction for peace. Yes, Arafat ultimately fell execrably short of the potential suggested by this famous photo, and he ended his life having betrayed the cause of peace and let his own people down. But this is one of the risks of an award meant to encourage people in their efforts rather than reward them for their worth. If Yigal Amir hadn't committed his heinous sin things might have gone very differently.

If one thinks about Arafat and his Peace Prize fairly one must remember one thing. Whatever else was true of these men, neither of them was stupid, both knew that they were risking their lives in allowing the cameras to capture them in this posture. The fact that Arafat was ultimately proved a coward only makes his willingness to accept Rabin's hand in this moment more remarkable, and argues for the wisdom at the time of encouraging him to continue doing the right thing.

So where Kate Marie may feel that her "rogue's gallery" of "saints" completely discredits the Nobel Peace Prize, she misunderstands both the spirit and purpose of the award. There is a consistent logic to all the awards she lampoons, and that logic extends to all the awardees I've named here and on up to Al Gore. As for Al Gore, I would place his "worth" somewhere below that of Aung San Suu Kyi and above that of Yasser Arafat, but that factors very little into my belief that his Peace Prize is well deserved and in the best tradition of the Nobel. In fairness, I don't think that Gore has ever done anything remotely as brave as Arafat did in taking Rabin's hand (with the possible exception of spending a night in a foxhole at Khe Sanh during Vietnam), but I doubt that he will fall as far short of the promise that the Nobel Committee is seeking to encourage.

Go ahead Stewdog and Kate Marie, be as glib as you wanna be.


Blogger Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

First of all, I really like this post. It's nice to see a more personal side of the Madman, to get a glimpse of how world history intersects with your personal history in a poignant way.

I must object, however, to your assumption that I saw my "rogue's gallery" as completely discrediting the Nobel Peace Prize. As may have been clear from the title, I didn't see it as much of an argument for anything. It was, you know, self-consciously glib.

That said, while I understand and appreciate your take on the Nobel Peace Prize, and while I agree that some of its recipients are worthy ones, I'm not sure that I can quite credit an award that is so vulnerable both to poltical manipulation and to the "glib" characterizations of someone like Jessica Walker from Reason magazine, who listed this as the third way to win a Nobel Peace Prize: "Kill a lot of people, then stop."

Glib that may be, but it's rather too uncomfortably close to your more eloquently phrased contention that the prize "will occasionally have to acknowledge the redemptive efforts of those tainted by war." One might only modify Walker's glib phrase by adding, ". . . and shake an enemy's hand" in order to encompass most of your point (in an admittedly somewhat caricatured fashion).

I would ask, for instance, whether there are any limits to the taint that may be carried by a prospective peace prize winner? What about participation in -- or ignoring -- genocide? If there *is* a line to be drawn at all, why should I be inclined either to trust or credit the line-drawing of a handful of Norwegians?

I would also suggest that the award, for reasons you yourself point out (i.e. Arafat's cowardice and betrayal of peace), is rather ahistorical, in that it acknowledges "efforts" and "intentions" in discrete moments of history, with little regard for the way that those efforts may ripen or sour or be betrayed in the fullness of time and history. Could Chamberlain/Hitler have been awarded a peace prize after Munich, for instance?

Finally, Madman, it's someone like Kofi Annan that I think of as much as Arafat when I remember the Nobel Peace Prize. For me, it is absolutely unconscionable simply to ignore three quarters of a million slaughtered people who would have liked to live out their own lives in peace . . . No matter *what* else Annan has done to further the cause of peace in the world. That the Nobel committee could ignore so many murdered people, or that they could imagine Annan's "efforts" in other areas to compensate for the horrible dereliction of his office in the case of Rwanda and Srebenica, convinces me that I need feel no obligation to give the committee nor the award itself any credibility, however I may feel about the worthiness of any particular recipient.

Here's an brief editorial from a U.N. peacekeeper and "liberal multilateralist" about Annan:

Now, I'm *not* being glib. I refuse to honor or give credence to a committee or an award that gives money, a banquet, and a speech opportunity to Annan, while it presumably asks all the dead of Rwanda and Srebenica to keep quiet in the interests of "peace."

October 16, 2007 11:35 PM  
Blogger Wonderdog said...

KM, as always, can say it much more eloquently than I. I'll put in these two cents, however.

I would edit merely one word with regard to your assessment that those like Arafat must be tolerated by the committee in the abberational effort of peace. With regard to Arafat, it is not those "tainted by war", but rather, those "tainted by murder."

October 17, 2007 5:31 PM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

Thanks for the kind words. Thanks also for taking my post seriously, I know you feel strongly about this issue.

On your post, give me some credit. I didn't entirely assume (I did qualify my remark with "may," after all), and your final paragraph seems to reiterate the point that I read into your post. The one unfair aspect of my reading was to use the word "misunderstand" rather than "mischaracterize," implying that you fail to grasp the logic of the Nobel Prize rather than simply disagreeing with it.

I suspect that this issue cuts to a basic difference of philosophical perspective between you and I. I sympathize with the perspective embodied in Walker’s satire, which is not only glib but quite funny, in part because it is so tragically true. It does not persuade me to alter my perception of the Peace Prize, however.

Take the case I’ve discussed above. Could not Walker’s glib remark (or your amplification of it) be applied as easily to Rabin as Arafat? There are undoubtedly Palestinians today who revere Arafat the way I revere Rabin. You and I may (do) agree that they are wrong, but no amount of reasoned debate is ever going to make us all see eye to eye. The question of who is right is different than the question of how peace will best be achieved. If peace had to wait on a final and comprehensive philosophical resolution of who is right or wrong, many wars would never end, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one such war. Walker’s satire reminds us that no cultural icon, including the Nobel Peace Prize, should be taken so seriously as to become a fetish, but it does not negate the value of such icons altogether.

I would disagree that the award is ahistorical. Were it being conferred for “worth” it would aspire to an ahistorical essentialism, but as it is being applied for specific political purposes at specific moments, one must examine the historical context in which each Prize was given in order to fairly assess its significance and validity. The case of Chamberlain and Hitler provide an example of this principle in negative terms. The rationale of the Prize does admit to it being awarded to Chamberlain and Hitler, and if it had been I’m sure that would have totally discredited the award, as subsequent generations would have viewed the Nobel Committee as being fools for endorsing appeasement. Yet given the degree of enthusiasm for the accord reached by Hitler and Chamberlain in so many intellectual and diplomatic circles at the time, it shows some prescience of mind that the Nobel Committee did not grant them its recognition.

You point out that the Committee is essentially a handful of Norwegians, but I honestly cannot view this as detracting from the Prize’s value. I’ll grant that there is much room to disagree with their principles and gestures, but I can’t help but admire the audacity with which they lay their opinions before the world and invite its derision. In an age in which the power differential between states and individuals is growing astronomically wide, it is consoling to know that some small groups of people without significant coercive powers- a bunch of Tibetan monks in exile, the college of cardinals at Rome, a band of academics in Oslo- can still command the attention of the world. Say what you like about the scruples of the Nobel Committee, but they were able to award their Prize for literature to Orhan Pamuk while our own Congress cannot pass a resolution condemning the 90-year-old genocide committed by the government which has brought him to trial. This is not to say that the act of the Nobel Committee took any more courage than that of Congress would have, but that it is of benefit to the world to have an institution that speaks with such a high profile and lacks the political entanglements of a fiscal-military state.

As for Kofi Annan, I hesitate to address that point for fear of offending you. I must declare outright that my own assessment of anyone involved in the tragedy of Rwanda is tempered by my personal shame of my own inaction during that crisis. I wrote no letters to elected officials, I attended no political rallies. Given the horrific moral dimensions of this crime every world citizen was obligated to do all that he or she could, and so I can’t help but feel that my guilt in some sense mirrors that of Clinton or Annan. I was obviously in a position to do much less, but what I could do correspondingly involved much less responsibility and risk and I failed to do even that much.

Cain’s perspective is unimpeachably legitimate, but it is not comprehensive or definitive of all the moral complexities surrounding any view of Annan. The UN really only had an opportunity to ameliorate the crisis in its early stages, after that the course of the tragedy would have required robust intervention by a major Power or coalition of powers. To blame Annan for the UN”s failure to act presumes that he had the ultimate power to make such action happen. The UN General Secretary does not have the powers of a genuine state executive, his “command” of the peace-keeping forces is constrained by a tortuously complex web of limitations and impediments. Even if Annan had wanted to commit to robust action in Rwanda, the Security Council opposed such a course, and their authority trumped his. This is not to say that Annan was necessarily prevented from doing what he wanted to do. The UN does not enjoy genuine “possession” of its own peacekeeping forces, the sovereign prerogatives of their home countries remain in effect even as they don the “blue helmet.” If Annan believed that peacekeeping soldiers might be killed, he could well have been reluctant to give any orders that would result in that contingency, as it could reverberate to the serious long-term detriment of the UN as an institution. One would be right to argue that such concerns pale against the enormity of the tragedy that ultimately ensued, but this presupposes that in the early days and weeks of the genocide Annan could foresee how events would evolve. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the moment the unthinkable most often takes people by surprise. Moreover, world leaders learn through hard experience that in the early stages of a crisis 90% of what gets reported from the ground must be mistrusted, thus expecting Annan to have had a transparent perspective on the situation in the short window when UN action might have helped is unreasonable.

In the end if the lesson of Rwanda was that of the ineptitude of Kofi Annan that might be strangely comforting, as it would suggest that the redress of this problem is to simply make sure that a good person is “in charge.” But the lesson of Rwanda is far more complex- it suggests that until the UN is reformed it will never be an effective mechanism for preventing genocide. Any organization that diffuses power and responsibility as widely as the UN does will inevitably produce impotence and moral negligence. This fact is being dramatically demonstrated even now in Darfur- though we have a new UN General Secretary the crime of genocide is being repeated, and with even more sustained brutality than before.

It is undeniably your prerogative to discount the Nobel Peace Prize on the case of Kofi Annan, but I cannot share your view. Annan is an ambivalent figure, I will grant you, but those who admire him for overseeing a reassertion of the potential efficacy of the UN after a long period of malaise and moribundity have their case. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you bring the world to the bargaining table with the institutions you have got, and like a mechanic who coaxes uncanny speed out of an old lemon Annan was, despite glaring failures, able to get the UN to outperform its limitations as an instrument of international diplomacy in many instances. I believe that the Nobel Committee awarded both the UN and Annan the Peace Prize in 2001 as a plea to pursue diplomacy as an instrument of counterterrorism in the post-9/11 world, and with that perspective I heartily agree.

October 17, 2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

You're right. We will have to agree to disagree on this one. Where we do agree is on the need for major reform of the U.N.

As for Annan's power to act without the support or approval of the Security Council, yes, that's a problem, but my point is that one of the reasons that Annan and the U.N. exist is to provide an extra-national organization/forum which doesn't simply rubber stamp the timidity/moral cowardice/prejudices of any one nation or group of nations. The very least Annan could have done in the case of Rwanda is to raise a big enough fuss to shame the Security Council and other nations into action -- and to point out how comparatively little action would have been required.

In any event, to recognize Annan's "overseeing the reassertion of the *potential* efficacy of the U.N." is -- as I've already said -- to turn a blind eye to one of the most glaring examples of the inefficacy of the U.N. in its history. To overlook the tragic examples of Rwanda and Srebenica in order to make a largely symbolic plea for the pursuit of diplomacy as an instrument of counterterrorism is, in my opinion, the most absurd kind of moral preening on the part of the Nobel committee. They're saying, in effect, "Look, the U.N. is impotent and it doesn't work. We have the tragic examples of Rwanda and Srebenica to prove that. But we want to make a political point about diplomacy in a 9/11 world, so . . . bring on the banquet and the pickled herring!"

Ahem. Sorry. I don't want to be accused of being glib again. I know we both feel strongly about this. I respect the passion and erudition that you bring to these issues, and I understand your perspective, but I can't sign on to it in this instance.

P.S. I wouldn't be so sanguine about the prescience of the committee in the case of Chamberlain. They probably had too little time after the Munich "triumph" and "peace for our time" to act. By the time the next year rolled around, "peace" was something that Europe and the rest of the world wouldn't experience much of for a long, long time (maybe if they'd awarded Churchill a prize in the 30's I'd agree with you about their prescience). Anyway, I guess that's one of the other problems I have with a "peace"award. "Peace" is really a rather vague and amorphous term, and as such it lends itself to political distortions. But I guess we've already covered that territory.

October 18, 2007 6:42 AM  
Blogger Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

I can see that my anti-glibness campaign has come back to bite me in the ass. Having pointed the accusing finger I now feel self-conscious about indulging my usual sarcastic instincts, and thus let you steal a march on me with that herring joke (I was tempted to write "Cut the Norwegians some slack, they've got this and herring," but refrained). My mojo is obviously off, I haven't been able to think of a tactful way to slip in a remark about Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Oscar.

I never imagined I'd get you to sign up with us Nobel-hugging liberals, so if you will allow my post and comments any amount of "passion and erudition" I should probably quit while I am behind. I've never been one to confuse what I should do for what I will do, though. Thus I've a few final things to say in response to your latest comments, and then I will sign off and leave you or Stewdog or Wonderdog or whoever feels like chiming in the last word.

I confess I didn't know any particulars of the history of the Nobel from the 1930's before giving my little counterfactual analysis above. I poked around and I think there is some evidence to suggest that the Nobel Committee was not saved from its own potential folly by the chance winds of history, however. The 1935 awardee was Carl von Ossietsky, a dissident German journalist who was at the time in a Nazi concentration camp. According to the Nobel site, Hitler was furious at the award and allowed no German awardees in any categories to accept a Nobel that year. Ossietsky died in camp 17 months after being given the Prize in absentia. It seems unlikely that Hitler was going to get any love from the Committee after that.

As for the UN, forgive me for saying that I find the opprobrium in which you hold it excessive, especially the blame which you level at them for Srebenica and Rwanda. On a list of those responsible for these tragedies, the UN would fall far below the perpetrators, the EU, NATO, the US government, the governments of the other G8 countries, and the governments of Belgium, Serbia, and Croatia (for Rwanda in the case of the first, for Srebenica in the case of the latter two). All those former groups and organizations had a freer range of action and greater power than the UN. The UN is an institution designed for facilitating diplomacy between nations, it is not genuinely structured or equipped to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. You agree with me that the UN should be reformed, but I wonder whether you would really like the results. Equipping the UN to deal with genocide would require investing it with some of the powers of an actual government, thus allowing the collected member states to impose their will on one of their fellows. That might produce a UN that would have moved more robustly in Rwanda, but it might also produce a UN that would take a much more robust adversarial stand against Israel or even the US. Such a contingency might ultimately lead to the dissolution of the UN altogether, thus one is faced with the conundrum of how to reform the UN without destroying it. Given these contexts I can't agree that any recognition of the UN amounts to "turning a blind eye...," as the the UN was at least at the site of these tragedies, inefficacious as it was, while all those other governments and organizations who actually had the power to change history failed to act at all (or made the situation worse).

Thus, I would rewrite your characterization of the statement made by the 2001 Prize to read: "Look, the UN is obviously a flawed institution. It didn't have the capacity to deal with the horrific moral tragedies at Srebenica and Rwanda, but in conflict zones like Cyprus, Cambodia, East Timor, El Salvador, Namibia, Kosovo and many others the UN has helped engender and overseen enduring peace, demonstrating the potential power of a robust commitment to multilateral diplomacy and conflict management. We know that in the wake of this heinous attack on the US, military action is inevitable, but as we stride forward into this perilous new age we ask that those in authority remember the utility of the instruments of 'soft power.' ...Now start the banquet and passed the smoked herring!"

The difference between my translation of the Committee's message and yours is entirely a matter of perspective, of course. Like I said above, I think this reflects a basic philosophical difference between you and I that has informed numerous arguments dating back to even before (but especially evident in) our grand debate about the merits of Existentialism at Denny's and over Peking duck. This is reflected for me in your ambivalence about the concept of "peace" itself. I'm comfortable with an ideal that is only ever existentially imperfectly realizable and remains perpetually negotiable, while I sense that values which fall short of always being true in pristine essence make you uneasy. It may seem sanctimonious to say, but for me the very quality of peace to which you point- its elusive and ephemeral nature- is part of what explains its being a sacred mystery at the heart of all the monotheistic religions. Shalom is enshrined in Torah, Islam takes its name from the same three-consonant root (S-L-M, as Sadeeq can verify), and Jesus is the "Prince of Peace," a king who has no army or treasury. That last one will twist your head as well as any Zen koan.

Good night from the Madhouse,


October 18, 2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

I'm so happy to have preempted your pickled herring remark that I'm inclined to let you have the last (serious) word here. Anyway, as you've already remarked, our disagreement is a matter of perspective. I would only quibble with your characterization of my perspective. It's not the imperfectly realized or unattainable ideal I'm uncomfortable with. Heck, I'm *very* comfortable with that notion, although I sometimes call it by another name (i.e., the Fall). It's the "perpetually negotiable" part that I have trouble with.

A few scattered thoughts;

1) I'll see your Zen koan and raise you one. The Prince of Peace said, "I bring not peace but a sword."

2) The Nobel committee pays too much attention to the talkers and conciliators and Oscar winners and too little to the sword-bearers, without whom many of the peacemakers would be out of business.

3) Ah, I remember the epic, meal-spanning debate very well. All I can say is . . . in the absence of God, everything is permitted, baby.

October 19, 2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger stewdog said...

This is an outrage. Civil discourse? No blodies bodies on the floor? No biting rhetoric? No "Jane, you ignorant s**t? And so many darned words. I live in LA, damn you both. . I need brief shallow sound bites!
AGHHH! The Horror

October 19, 2007 3:57 PM  

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