President Obama is now a Laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s enough in that statement alone to drive rightwing conservatives insane. And insane they certainly are, as others are ably and gleefully documenting. The general gist of the response by the Right is twofold, and predictably schizophrenic: 1. Obama has not accomplished enough in office to deserve the NPP, and 2. the NPP only awarded it to Obama because he is a. not-Bush and b. he is African-American. In essence, this means that they are arguing that the Nobel Peace Prize is both a farce and sacred at the same time. Of course, conservatives’ enmity for the Peace prize is longstanding, given that it was awarded to Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore, even as they pine for it’s omission to George W. Bush.
While the conservatives’ newfound concern for the integrity of the NPP is certainly touching, the same critique coming from the Left carries more weight. But to address this, you have to consider the intention of the Peace Prize. And for that, we can look to the wishes of Alfred Nobel himself. In his will, he stipulated that the Nobel Peace Prize shall be awarded to
“to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Now, there’s nothing in there about solving the Middle East conflict or riding the world of nuclear weapons, though certainly progress towards these goals would count. But the secific language used to define the concept of “peace” itself is interesting. The NPP is to be awarded for 1. doing work towardds fraternity of nations, and promotion of peace congresses. These are process, not end-result, statements. The sole end-result qualification listed in “reduction of armies” which I don’t think any winner has ever managed to achieve, though President Obama’s renewed attention to nuclear non-proliferation is relevant here (and explicitly quoted by the Nobel Committee as part of their justification for awarding it to him).
First, consider the process-oriented criteria. What has Obama achieved along these lines? Glenn Greenwald offers a summary of how Obama has “promoted peace” and “fraternity between nations”:
Obama has changed the tone America uses to speak to the world generally and the Muslim world specifically. His speech in Cairo, his first-week interview on al-Arabiya, and the extraordinarily conciliatory holiday video he sent to Iran are all substantial illustrations of that. His willingness to sit down and negotiate with Iran — rather than threaten and berate them — has already produced tangible results. He has at least preliminarily broken from Bush’s full-scale subservience to Israel and has applied steadfast pressure on the Israelis to cease settlement activities, even though it’s subjected him to the sorts of domestic political risks and vicious smears that have made prior Presidents afraid to do so. His decision to use his first full day in office to issue Executive Orders to close Guantanamo, ostensibly ban torture, and bar CIA black sites was an important symbol offered to the world (even though it’s been followed by actions that make those commitments little more than empty symbols). He refused to reflexively support the right-wing, civil-liberty-crushing coup leaders in Honduras merely because they were “pro-American” and “anti-Chavez,” thus siding with the vast bulk of Latin America’s governments — a move George Bush, or John McCain, never would have made. And as a result of all of that, the U.S. — in a worldwide survey released just this week — rose from seventh to first on the list of “most admired countries.”
That’s an impressive list, though the caveats about rendition are noted. Some righties argue Obama should only be “eligble” for his actions as President in the 11 days he was in office prior to the NPP nomination deadline of Feb 1st – which is silly, since the actual deliberations took seven months. Why wouuldn’t Obama’s actions over that time be relevant to the decision? But it’s still worth pointing out that Obama’s executive orders on his very first day in office about torture and Guantanamo alone represent as significant an ideological change in direction for America as Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika did (earning him a NPP in 1990, even though the actual and unanticipated breakup of the Soviet Union didn’t happen until the following year).
It’s clear that Obama meets the process-oriented criteria. But what about “reduction of standing armies” and its nuke proxy? The Nobel Committee explicitly lauded Obama’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, especially recently at the United Nations. However, the truth is that Obama remains wedded to the double standard on nuclear power, holding Iran and India to one standard while looking the other way when it comes to Israel’s obsolete “strategic ambiguity“. A genuine commitment to “zero nuke” policy would entail no favoritism, and insisting all nuclear-capable nations sign the NPT, Israel included. The hypocrisy on this does not go unnoticed and the threat of Israeli nuclear power is what drives the nuclear arms race in the middle east.
However, all of this is really beside the point, since it assumes that the Nobel Prize remains an “award” when in fact it is no such thing. It is actually a shrewd vehicle for influencing the power elite, and as such represents an attempt to lobby Obama and influence him over the course of his next term(s). The decsion of who gets a Nobel Peace Prize, and just as importantly who doesn’t, is an explicit editorial statement. That President Bush was not awarded one* was a rebuke of the unilateral, pre-emptive, diplomacy-averse doctrine that bears his name. But with Obama, it is an attempt to shape the doctrine yet to be.
Richard Silverstein makes much the same point:
I think this award is really a shot in the dark. A big gamble. They’re telling Obama and the world that they have enormous hopes for him. They’re also telling us what deep straits the world is in. From Gaza to Teheran to Kabul to Baghdad, things are a mess. A military attack against Iran hangs like a question mark over the Middle East. The committee is essentially saying that tough times demand risk and this award is a risk. It could be that Obama will merit it over time. It could be that the award will make it that much easier for him to achieve some of his agenda. If so, the Swedes are telling us that’s all to the good.
Lately, Obama has taken hits both at home and abroad. This award is meant as a shot in the arm, a bit of courage for the tough times ahead. He’ll need it.
I hope against hope that this award will encourage the realist camp in dealing with Iran. I hope it will give pause to the Israeli adventurists gunning for a fight with Iran. I do think it will make it that much harder for Obama himself to turn hawkish, as he has intimated he might do if negotiations fail. So maybe there’s some shrewdness to this award as well.
Indeed. Liberal critics like Greenwald** point to the Afghanistan War as evidence Obama doesn’t “deserve” the prize, but General McChrystal’s public call for more troops seems to have influenced Obama to take a troop reduction off the table. This represents a success for McChrystal, who may not (probably won’t) get his full requested 40,000 troops, but also won’t face the Biden-advocated strategy of reducing troops still further in favor of purely couunter-terrorism operations. The Nobel Peace Prize applies pressure on Obama from the opposite end. Like it or not, Obama has to factor the potential of headlines like “Obama wins Peace Prize, extends War” into his political calculus; the Afghanistan people themselves are making the case already.
I think that the best interpretation of the Nobel Peace Prize is the single word response from Barack Obama’s official Twitter account: “Humbled.” In his public response, President Obama said, “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments. But rather as an affirmation of American leadership. … I will accept this award as a call to action.”
Indeed, recognition that the award represents global aspirations for peace and an expectation of American leadership should be a heavy burden that weighs on Obama’s soul as he occupies the most powerful office in the world, at a time when the world is arguably at its most uncertain and strife-laden. Let’s hope that the intentions of the Nobel Committee, if not their specific agenda, come true. As Obama charts the way forward in Afghanistan, pursues non-proliferation, engages Iran and North Korea, promotes a two-state solution, and more, the heavy weight NPP around his neck will hopefully inure him to short-term political distractions and focus him on the end goals, and question whether the conventional wisdoms he so far has largely hewn to will indeed be sufficient for the task.
*For what it’s worth, if I were eligible to nominate, I’d have nominated Bush, for the sole reason of deposing Saddam. That doesn’t mean he’d have won, of course.
**Arguably, though Greenwald won’t agree, Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan in March has actually lessened the need for aerial strikes. The truth behind the troops debate is that the fewer troops we have, the heavier reliance on drone attacks will be and thus the more civilian casualties. This is a fact that lefty critics of Obama’s war must accept.