09/13/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

Debasing the Peace Prize

AP Photo/John McConnico

If President Obama launches the missile strike that he proposes against Syria, with or without authorization from Congress, he should send his Nobel Peace Prize back to Oslo.

Obama ran for president on an anti-war platform. In 2009 the Nobel Committee cited his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." He said humbly in accepting the prize, "My accomplishments are slight." He honored Martin Luther King Jr., who said in 1964, "I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice."

But in his Nobel lecture Obama, who later saw fit to lecture African Americans on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, stressed his duties as commander-in-chief. "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies," he said. "Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."

In his address on Sept. 10, Obama said, "The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use."

I do not take the president's responsibilities or concerns lightly, but I do dispute the value of American intrusion into a chaotic civil conflict. I question how we can foster stability by hurling ordnance into a tinderbox. There is a jarring disconnect between stated purpose and proposed action. If the Kerry-Lavrov diplomatic gambit fails and the Great Satan's rain of fire commences, it will be but our latest mission in which we discount the risk of sending other people's son's and daughters into war.

On Sept. 9 I participated in an anti-war protest outside the U.S. Capitol that was led by Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. In the protest which we waved signs and chanted, "No more war!" to passing U.S. representatives. Her heckling approach to activism is not my style any more than right-wing Obama critics like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are my kind of politicians. I am not happy opposing the most pro-gay president in history. But I never signed up for a cult of personality, and I will not let partisan considerations govern me in this. During the strike's welcome postponement, the president should listen to his own ambivalence. These are grave matters. It is not just the other guy's weapons that kill the innocent.

The prospect of American military action in an already unstable region, against a tyrant whom American and other Western leaders so recently wined and dined, needs better justification than sending messages or saving face. Other malefactors we aided and subsequently confronted were Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. I cannot accept the topsy-turvy logic of "let's do something, even if it's wrong."

In the 1990s Madeleine Albright, then the Secretary of State, said to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" This treatment of deadly weapons like toys in a sandbox, whether by liberals or by conservatives, deserves rebuke. True patriots should insist, even when humanitarian concerns are raised, that we pause to consider whether particular acts of war are demanded because America is "the indispensable nation" or because the military-industrial complex requires feeding.

A friend from South Africa said that he would be glad to see America take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though that is beyond Obama's stated intentions. But Americans are increasingly unwilling to pay the price for our overextended military. And history gives us reason to mistrust promises that a limited strike will not lead us into a quagmire. Do not do it, Mr. President.

This piece appeared in Bay Windows and Metro Weekly.