Peace, or just war?

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"The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." So said Barack Obama in Oslo last month as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Obama's speeches are increasingly remarkable. His announcement of the 30,000 surge of troops to Afghanistan was made at West Point military academy to a near all-white audience. With shades of George Bush, he evoked visions of the US's manifest destiny and made repeated references to 9/11 as the continued justification for war in Afghanistan. He could have come straight from the pages of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The irony of the commander in chief of the biggest military power in the world being awarded the prize was not lost even on the media. There is further irony in the whole concept of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was conceived and bankrolled by arms manufacturer and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, in the same way that the multinationals responsible for some of the worst pollution in the world are willing to throw a few million towards ecological projects, if it allows them to pursue their greater purpose.

Obama's speech highlighted his greater purpose: the pursuit of the "just war" which was the only way to bring about lasting peace. Remarkably, he praised Martin Luther King and Gandhi, who both practised non-violent resistance, but claimed that such tactics cannot be appropriate when dealing with the "evil [that] does exist in the world". This argument really says that non-violence seems a perfectly fine, principled tactic to employ, but that it's for liberals and will never work when faced with "evil".

But if we're going to study history we should deal in facts. There has been much debate about the tactics endorsed by King and Gandhi, but no one would claim they had anything but a major effect - they both remain towering figures of 20th century politics. They were fighting against targets which some might, if they used the language, deem "evil": the systematic segregation of blacks in the southern states of the US on the one hand and the brutal oppression and exploitation which was the British Empire in India on the other.

"A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies," said Obama, again echoing the humanitarian warmongers of recent years. Whoever said that it could? But it's equally true to say that Hitler could not have got as far as he did without the explicit or implicit support of many rulers who allied with him, appeased him or simply tried to ignore him. One of the major arguments of the left in Europe in the 1930s was against the appeasement which sacrificed Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. Hitler grew in power not because the people who opposed him were woolly liberals or pacifists, but because European governments allowed him to grow and sought appeasement rather than confrontation.

This was also true of the US government, which entered the war against Japan at the end of 1941 but which had war declared on it by Hitler rather than the other way round. It was not until 1943, four years after the war in Europe had begun, that US soldiers fought in Europe. The truth is that the "just war" was fought in the interests of the various powers. Even before Hitler was defeated they were quarrelling over how best to divide up the spoils of war. In the process they turned against or sidelined some of those, like the partisans in various countries, who had been some of the most consistent fighters against fascism.

However, every US president who wants to prosecute a new war brings out this old argument. Now Obama compares Al Qaida to Hitler. The comparison is ludicrous. Even US military intelligence reckons there are only 100 - yes, 100 - Al Qaida members in Afghanistan. Hitler's Germany, on the other hand, was one of the greatest economic and military powers in the world. It suits the US to exaggerate Al Qaida's strength in order to defend an indefensible war.

If we are missing a just war, there is no evidence that US wars have brought about lasting peace, as we were promised. The first Gulf War in 1991 heralded a regime of sanctions, causing much death and suffering in Iraq and eventually leading to the 2003 war. Many Iraqis would reject the idea that they have peace today, let alone a just or prosperous one. The interventions in the Balkans wars in the 1990s led to the creation of two Western "protectorates", in Bosnia and Kosovo, which more than ten years later are still riddled with poverty, drug and gun running, with the ever present threat of ethnic tension.

The doctrine of humanitarian intervention has failed there, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. So instead of a "just war" we're left with just war. And the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize is about to bring you even more of it.