The Peace Prize Winner Who Waged War

In 2009, Barack Obama acknowledged that the Nobel Peace Prize honor was aspirational. In 2017, it still is.


When he was first elected president, many observers, up to and including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, believed Barack Obama would represent a substantive departure from the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On the campaign trail, the then–senator from Illinois promised to bring the Iraq War to an end within 16 months. In reality, it ended in December 2011, as agreed upon in the status of forces agreement Bush made with Iraq in 2008, and only after Obama tried and failed to keep a 10,000-strong residual force there past the withdrawal date.

On the eve of Election Day 2016, there were about 5,000 U.S. soldiers in that country. Many were embedded with Iraqi troops or otherwise engaged in the military campaign to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, a group that evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq—itself a product of and one of the primary combatants in the post-invasion phase of the war. The number of Americans in the country has crept upward since June 2014, when Obama sent troops there at the request of the Iraqi government. The deployment came just two and a half years after the withdrawal that was supposed to mark the conclusion of the war in Iraq.

Candidate Obama promised a "robust" diplomatic effort aimed toward Iraq and its neighbors (including Syria and Iran) to ensure the countries' stability. Instead, the U.S. continues to press for regime change in Syria while keeping diplomatic engagement with Iran limited largely to the status of the latter's nuclear program. U.S. troops and other American military assets are involved both in the fight against ISIS in Syria and in supporting the rebellion to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

There are troops and other assets in Libya, whose previous government was overthrown during a U.S.-led intervention into the country's civil war; in Somalia, where the U.S. has had an on-again, off-again military presence since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1993, and where the U.S. is currently fighting Al-Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate; in Yemen, where the U.S.-and-Saudi-backed government-in-exile is trying to retake control of the country; in West Africa, where the U.S. is assisting in the fight against Boko Haram, a Nigerian terror group with ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS; and in Uganda and its neighbors, where the U.S. is assisting in the war with Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.

According to the most recent War Powers report from Obama to Congress, we also have troops deployed in Turkey and Djibouti (to support efforts in the Middle East), Cuba (Guantanamo Bay remains open nearly eight years after Obama signed an executive order to close it), Egypt (where we've been since 1981), Kosovo (where we've been since 1999), and Jordan (where 2,200 American troops are assisting the government).

Finally, more than 8,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. That war, begun in October 2001 as a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, has now lasted longer than the American Civil War and the entirety of World War I and World War II. President Obama has repeatedly postponed the date of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; the final drawdown is currently scheduled for sometime after he leaves office.

Obama promised to take the Afghan war more seriously, but a surge in troops and diplomatic personnel early in his presidency changed little on the ground, and the Afghan government seems no more capable now than it was eight years ago of governing the country without the assistance of foreign military powers. Any opportunity created by the deployments was squandered by bureaucratic infighting, as detailed in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2012 book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

According to the committee that awarded him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama was being recognized "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." At the time, Obama acknowledged that the honor was aspirational. It still is.