Nobel not such a big deal


THE Norwegian committee that chose to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama may already be regretting its decision. Whatever its motives, embarrassing the recipient by whipping up a tsunami of ridicule was almost certainly not among them.

Most reactions have liberally been sprinkled with the word "premature" or its synonyms. After all, broadly positive intentions and uplifting rhetoric alone do not usually suffice as a condition for this accolade. And the US president hasn’t travelled very far on the achievements front.

True, he consistently opposed the aggression against Iraq and has signalled that particular conflict will conclude in due course. It hasn’t ended yet, though. The Guantanamo Bay gulag is also destined for the chop. But not just yet.

It has been declared that prisoners will no longer be subjected to torture. But not every black site is likely to be abolished, and the completely indefensible policy of rendition has not categorically been outlawed.

A beginning of sorts has been made in negotiations with Iran, but the path ahead is full of twists and turns and slippery dips. (Israel, meanwhile, has gone a bit too quiet over the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, sparking concern in some quarters about the imminence of a military strike.)

Granted, Obama hasn’t described Binyamin Netanyahu as "a man of peace", the words that his predecessor used for, of all people, Ariel Sharon. But nor has he been able to persuade Israel to stop expanding its illegal West Bank settlements.

That wouldn’t have been a monumental achievement but a small step towards a possible settlement. (It has been reported, meanwhile, that some of the more rabid Israeli Zionists refer to the US president in disparaging terms even more racially charged than the epithets hurled at him by domestic extremists.)

Then, of course, there’s the small matter of the Af-Pak situation. There’s a war under way in Afghanistan that has just entered its ninth year and still appears to be going nowhere. The American commander-in-chief – yup, the same guy who’ll be pulling out all the rhetorical stops in his Nobel lecture less than two months from now – is under pressure from the Pentagon to sanction a surge. And the Kerry-Lugar bill on aid to Pakistan has gone down like a lead balloon in the targeted country.

If a peace prize for a war president seems like an anomaly to more or less everyone, some of  Obama’s more reactionary domestic opponents have seemed to construe it as confirmation that he’s part of some grand international socialist conspiracy to bring America to its knees. Some of their counterparts on the left, meanwhile, apparently find it hard to handle the fact that he isn’t exactly a revolutionary.

The Norwegian committee’s denial that it broke with tradition this year by awarding a prize for intentions rather than achievements has been taken with a pinch of salt in most quarters. Yet the will Alfred Nobel signed 114 years ago decreed that one prize be dedicated to "the person who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".

It is at least arguable that Obama loosely satisfies these criteria, perhaps more so than most other nominees. The choice of recipient is invariably based on a political decision, and the committee has this year demonstrated few qualms about effectively admitting as much.

It’s hardly a secret that George W. Bush was profoundly unpopular across Western Europe. Obama effortlessly reversed that trend by flashing a few smiles and uttering a few words. The choice of words did matter, of course. But then, this president tends not to  spout nonsense. His decision against going ahead with the absurd "missile shield" in proximity to Russia’s western border has gone down well not only in Moscow but also in other European capitals.

It is also unusual to hear an American president express a desire for a world free of nuclear weapons, a concept that has always had greater appeal in Europe than in the US. Small wonder, then, that Obama’s European popularity rating is 20 points higher than the 57 percent approval at home. In Norway, it’s 90 per cent.

The idea that Obama has been rewarded for being the un-Bush is supplemented in some cases by the apprehension that he might in fact turn out to be no more than the semi-Bush. This was implicit, for instance, in activist filmmaker Michael Moore’s initial reaction to the Nobel, in which he suggested that having won the prize, the president must now earn it – primarily by ending the war in Afghanistan.

After a lecture from his wife, and after listening "for far too long … to the right-wing hate machine", Moore had second thoughts. He resolved that Obama’s electoral success last November "was reason enough for him to be the recipient of this years Nobel Peace Prize. Because on that day the murderous actions of the Bush/Cheney years were totally and thoroughly rebuked."

Rebuked, yes, but not all of them have thus far been rolled back. Of course, just as American imperialism did not begin with Bush, it won’t end with Obama. There can be little question, though, that the latter’s sense of right and wrong is infinitely more advanced. And there is a helluva lot on his plate: Af-Pak, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Iran, climate change, healthcare, job creation, race relations … the list goes on and on.

Obama’s experience, furthermore, is as a community organizer, not as a miracle worker. Yet the position to which he has been elevated by the American electorate (which surely deserves a prize of its own) enables him to make a substantive difference on these and many other fronts. Yet he needs to be gently but firmly pushed in the right direction.

Perhaps that is all the Nobel committee was trying to do.

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