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On the Politics of Giving and Receiving -- Obama and the Peace Prize

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Marcus Aurelius is quoted as saying, "give no more than is due, for its excesses turn generosity into pain." On the night of President Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, I am compelled to contemplate the politics of receiving recognition for one's accomplishments. A gift is often an act of supererogation, something that is morally good to do, but not required. Giving a gift to a powerful person can be seen as an act of supererogation. I believe this poses an opportunity to reflect upon the politics of giving and receiving, particularly as it relates to the peace so desperately called for in this difficult geo-political climate. I write this as a suggestion to President Obama: Accept the prize, but then give it away as soon as you can in a formal environment. Be gracious about the honor given you at this time, but demonstrate your wisdom by giving it to those innocent, faceless victims of war who choose redemption over violence.

A gift such as the peace prize does not come without its burdens, particularly when it is given to someone in the middle of very delicate work, as is the case with President Obama. The President has been given an award which, by virtue of his office, can be seen as a political directive. Because he is still actively in office, the award will be seen as a determinate factor in every decision that follows, and as a result, he will be forced into a quagmire of political critique for a man already overly-burdened by broad expectations. I believe that while President Obama deserves the award he has been given , such an award imposes even further restrictions on the decisions he must make, particularly in relation to our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Were he to accept the award and increase troop levels in Afghanistan, the criticism he will receive will inevitably turn to a discussion on hypocrisy, and the recognition Obama now enjoys will turn sour very quickly.

These are my thoughts on President Obama's award, whether it's deserved, and what should be done with it.

1. It is incorrect to claim President Obama a premature recipient of the prize. Politicians are often judged by the quality of their words, and the rhetoric of powerful men and women often shapes the way we think and act about complicated problems. Many criticize the President for talking too much and doing little with his words. Those critics fail to recognize the enormous work it takes to articulate a vision that can influence complicated problems. Obama's words are actions, both productive and dynamic. In the short time he has held the office of the presidency, his ability to create open and dynamic political dialogue has improved foreign relations dramatically.

2. Giving the award to an elected leader while he is in office, while not inappropriate, marks his or her authority inappropriately. According to Alfred Nobel's will the peace prize is to be given to one whom "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." Anything the President does from here forward will be marked in relation to this statement, and unfortunately, no elected official sitting in office during war time can forecast how his decisions will align with the ideologies of peace, even when his principals are germane to its vision.

3. Regardless of whether President Obama deserves the prize, his office gives him too much power to accept such a gift. During the Nobel ceremonies, President Obama should graciously re-gift the prize, recasting it to recognize those who have suffered through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but who choose to rebuild their lives instead of retaliating with violence. The monetary award given to him should become the seed money for memorials in either country. It should be done in a manner that does not offend the committee, but instead proves to them that they made the right decision in giving him the award. Doing this achieves several important things. First, it places the emphasis of his award on the abrogation of suffering and the desire for a meaningful resolution to these conflicts. Second, it removes the burden of the gift now placed upon Obama. The gift no longer becomes a supererogative act given to a powerful person subject to the problems of celebrity; it becomes appropriate to a moral principle that is more difficult to criticize. Finally, it proves to those who are quick to criticize the President that the politics of giving and receiving should be a productive opportunity, one filled with possibilities for improving dialogue, consistent with the very thing that makes the Nobel Peace Prize an important, life-affirming thing -- a gift that has transformative powers and can make a difference if handled properly.

******* Since posting this article, several people have asked me why it is important to direct the prize at the Afghan and Iraqi people. Thomas Friedman has written a similar article, calling for Obama to share the prize with US Soldiers and families among others. I wrote this article because it appears that this discussion has excluded members of the war-torn villages who seldom get acknowledged for their contributions to peace. Their silence in this discussion is evidence of our need to improve our thinking about the war, and it is also an opportunity to think about the consequences of dramatizing what is essentially a positive thing while we are so removed from the actual conflicts in question. There are far more important things to think about and far too many people directly involved in our present conflict left watching this spectacle than is necessary.