Should WikiLeaks founder Assange be nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize? The essay below opens the debate. Read on
A Nomination for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize: WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
When WikiLeaks released its nearly 400,000 documents from the Iraq War on October 22, some claimed that the timing had been chosen in the hope of influencing the US elections on November 2nd by demonstrating that not much has changed in the American way of war from Bush to Obama despite the change agenda which swept Barack Obama and the Democrats into office in 2008. The public would see they had been deceived by the incumbents and would vote accordingly, commentators said.
I would prefer to place the timing of the release in a different and possibly more actionable context, coming as it did just two weeks after the announcement in Oslo of the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Among the most widely quoted tributes to the new laureate, Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, we find the following remarks from President Barack Obama: “…an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
I humbly submit that these words extolling the genuine act of bravery and commitment to democratic ideals of the founding signatory of Charter 08 which were being commended in Oslo might just as reasonably be applied to the extraordinary achievements of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In both cases what is at issue is standing up to a vastly powerful government establishment with nothing more than the written word on one’s side, thereby celebrating the human spirit and its quest for truth and justice.
In this brief essay, I propose to reverse the normal flow of my writing and begin with the conclusion: namely that Julian Assange would appear to be a very suitable candidate for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize if the trustees were genuinely interested in honoring the intentions of the award’s founder and turned away from the Cold War mentality which has dominated their considerations for decades and which was manifest in the naming of the 2010 Prize laureate.
To be sure, this year’s announcement was greeted very warmly not just by last year’s Peace Prize winner but by our mainstream media. The New York Times and The Financial Times are just two of the newspapers of record in the Anglo-Saxon world which showed particular delight at the Nobel committee's decision in their editorials.
It was admittedly a great improvement on the 2009 award of the Prize to an American President who had done absolutely nothing to justify recognition for contributions to world peace in his very short term in office, and who used the podium of the awards ceremony to justify war and more war in the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Indeed shortly thereafter Obama took the decision to endorse a ‘surge’ and send tens of thousands of further U.S. troops to that sad country.
However, like the 2009 award,. this year’s Nobel announcement amounted to currying favor with the Americans given their preoccupation of the moment. Choosing a leading Chinese dissident coincided nicely with the populist China-bashing going on in the USA as the midterm elections were in full swing and the country’s economic travails were laid at China’s door. There was a seamless shift from outrage over an undervalued yuan to handwringing over the denial of human rights and the punishment meted out to freedom fighters by the Communist regime. The good old days of known values and resistance to tyranny were back with us. This is a melody which finds an echo in certain political establishments of Western Europe as well.
Of course, you cannot please everybody. And here and there in the blogosphere, dissonant voices were raised. A Hong Kong-based Japanese journalist, Yoichi Shimatsu, wrote a harsh critique of the Nobel Prize committee and its chairman Thorbjoern Jagland for the ‘military mentality’ which has taken charge of the awards process. This sent the bloggers off to the races.
Many of the issues in play were set out nicely on a foreign affairs portal to which I contribute regularly, www.waisworld.org. I refer the reader to one posting in particular dated October 10 from Frederik S. Heffermehl, a Norwegian jurist and author of The Nobel Peace Prize. What Nobel really wanted (2010). Heffermehl argues that Alfred Nobel’s intent for the prize was fairly clear and was closely related to his personal support for the peace movement, for disarmament and for the holding of peace congresses. It emerges from Heffermehl’s explanations that the donor’s purpose of creating a civilized international society based on law and co-operation has been subverted by the five Norwegian parliamentarians who got their seats on the committee as a reward for retired politicians. In Heffermehl’s words, these are people who “have fought all their life for ideas on security and defense that are the direct opposite of the idea the prize should serve.”
For reasons I will explore further on, it seems that Mr Assange’s acts of remarkable courage in facing down our governments to defend universal principles, come far closer to the ideals of Alfred Nobel than do the deeds of our Chinese dissident. Indeed it might be reasonably argued that the end result of Mr.Liu Xiaobo's activities and the way they have been highlighted in the West has been to exacerbate tensions in international relations and to create an atmosphere conducive to military posturing.
But before going into that, allow me to explain what I mean by Assange’s acts of bravery. To appreciate what risks he is running, I refer the reader to an article published October 29 in the National Review Online: “All Quiet on the Black-Ops Front. Why Isn’t Julian Assange Dead?’ Author Jonah Goldberg is not your average purveyor of hate in local radio talk shows. He is listed as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a reputable ‘conservative’ think tank with the declared mission "to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism – limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.’ The content of Mr Goldberg’s article especially raises questions about his commitment to the last two values in the mission statement. While Mr. Goldberg does not call for Julian Assange to become just one more rubbed out gadfly and whistle-blower, or ‘to be garroted in his hotel room,’ or still better to turn into a ‘greasy stain on the autobahn,’ we get the idea from his colorful language that he wouldn’t be greatly bothered if any of these scenarios of Mr Assange’s imminent demise played out.
Compared to this violent mood among America’s chattering classes today, the risks of trial and incarceration faced back in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg over The Pentagon Papers leak, seem like child’s play. Ditto the punishment meted out to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for speaking his mind.
The spirit of the Pentagon’s response to the WikiLeaks release of Iraq war documents was ominous. A presenter on the BBC World radio news early the next morning was able to say what no one would have gotten away with in the more staid environment of BBC television: he described the Pentagon reaction as ‘shoot the messenger.’ Indeed, military brass and the civilian leadership in the person of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted the American public to know that WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange were putting American lives at risk by their irresponsible action.
For their part, our newspaper of record, the New York Times put the accent in its reportage on the aberrant personality of Mr Assange. On October 23 the paper published a lengthy article by John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya entitled “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Chased by Turmoil.” We are told of his secretive moves as if he were hallucinatory, suffering from some persecution complex. He comes across as acerbic, a very disagreeable personality who cannot keep staff, cannot get along with his colleagues. We are also reminded yet again that he got his start as 'a hacker' in the realm of malevolent techies.
Without knowing the man, it is impossible to say just how pleasant Julian Assange may be. But this line of investigation intentionally serves only to distract us from what principles Assange has defended and what deeds he has done. It is the quintessential ad hominem line of attack.
Moreover, this reportorial approach totally ignores the nature of the beast: what it means to be a ‘dissident’ anywhere. Having in my professional life met with more than one Soviet dissident, I can say what is obvious to anyone who had the similar pleasure: that they were to a man, disagreeable folk at the interpersonal level. Soviet psychologists knew very well what they were doing when they diagnosed such people as antisocial and in need of professional ‘help,’ preferably in institutions.
While our Chinese dissident, now Nobel laureate, may indeed be as angelic as he has been portrayed in the mainstream press, I may be allowed to have my personal reservations. Though as I have said, none of this is truly relevant to the matter at hand.
Normal team players with a positive frame of mind are more likely to be sitting somewhere in a US Air Force base in the American Southwest directing drone aircraft to target in the Tribal Zones of Waziristan and not fretting over collateral damage.
Let us turn then to what Mr Assange has done by extracting and releasing nearly 400,000 documents on the Iraq war. Those same media who are dismissive of Assange, the man, and who back in August were quick to post articles about trumped-up sex charges against Assange in Sweden, have, after all, put some journalists to work mining the WikiLeak documents and have come up with….American misdeeds in the field worthy of investigation as potential war crimes, namely the routine murder of civilians by the armed forces, whether privateers or uniformed personnel, occasioned by circumstance, at road checkpoints or in helicopter borne operations, as well as the apparently widespread use of torture by Iraqi security forces with the knowledge of U.S. military authorities.
Apart from the given misdeeds, the bigger picture is one of the depravity, the barbarism of war, smart weapons or no. It is precisely this dimension of what Julian Assange has brought to the attention of the world media which meets the intent of Alfred Nobel’s bequest. And the finally unavoidable significance of it all was validated when British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called the allegations coming out of the leaks “very serious” and demanding investigation. NGOs were a bit slow off the mark, but eventually lent their support to the same demand.
And so we find ourselves face to face with the fact that Mr Assange has acted in the best traditions of men of good conscience going back to Jan Hus: Pravda lituje, the truth will win out.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010
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G. Doctorow is a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and author of the newly published Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN-13 9781453764473. Now available from www.amazon.com in paperback and downloadable e-book edition, as well as via Amazon sites in Europe and Japan. At Barnes & Noble and select book stores.