Obama and the Nobel: Just Bizarre

First media check of the morning - my web browser opens to the NYT - and I thought it was a joke. "Has someone hacked the Times site?"

Nope. Obama really did win the Nobel Peace Prize, eight months after his inauguration.

Now I know a lot of people are going to be very happy about this; a new day has dawned, etc. Personally I found it inexplicable. And disturbing. And vaguely annoying.

The Nobel is supposed to mean something, although it's been awarded to some dubious people. Rigoberta Menchu, for example, for some an icon of the Guatemalan freedom struggle. All of the acts of terror and martyrdom that she describes in her autobiography really did happen. But many of them didn't happen to her, and the discovery of her lies set back the cause of peace in Guatemala by an incalculable quanta, since it allowed the reactionaries to pretend that nothing was very much wrong in Guatemala anyway, or that it was all the Indians' fault. Yasser Arafat also won the prize, as the right-wingers love to point out, although I don't think he deserved it less than his interlocutors and co-winners, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. None of them were willing to move their people towards what will ultimately be necessary for peace in the Middle East: The Palestinian abandonment of the dream of expelling the Jews from the region, and the Jewish abandonment of an undemocratic Jewish state in which Jews have special rights based on ethnicity.

And for every right-winger enjoying his outrage over Arafat's award, there's a left-winger who is dismayed at both Arafat and Kissinger receiving the prize.

Still, the peace prize has had many impressive and deserving laureates: Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Yunus, Aung San Suu Kyi, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Shirin Ebadi, among many others. Quite a few more good people than bad, people who changed the world or their little corner of it. What exactly has Obama done to deserve this honor, eight months out? He's embarked on a program of humility in diplomacy abroad, no doubt warming the hearts of the Norwegians who chose him [all the other Nobel prizes are awarded by Swedish institutions; the Peace Prize by a Norwegian one.] America now presents itself as merely an equal in the company of nations. I hope we're only doing this in public, not behind the scenes, because the world desperately can't afford, right now, for America not to lead military, economically, and diplomatically; and, yes, as a champion of freedom in the world. We don't have to be arrogant about it. But we do have to do it.

Obama hasn't done much about climate change besides talk about it a lot. He has more or less continued the Bush drawdown in Iraq, and he hasn't responded very forcefully to signs that the nascent and fragile civil society of Iraq may not be able to survive the absence of American soldiers, any more than it can survive the presence of American soldiers. Yes, it's a conundrum. What is Obama doing about it? I don't know. I doubt the Swedes and Norwegians do either.

Obama has suggested that the United States and the international community should move to complete nuclear disarmament - the thing that is more likely than any other thing in the world to guarantee the return of major wars between superpowers that kill tens of millions. This should not recommend him for a peace prize.

On Afghanistan, the most important issue before him at the moment, he's dragged his feet on a strategy. Signs are that he may be looking for a split-the-difference approach: Less than the full 50,000 troops that General McChrystal has requested, less than full engagement in nation-building, but more than simply a remote-controlled, killer-drone strategy of attacking al-Qaeda wherever it might be found in the country, leaving the Afghans to struggle with the Taliban on their own. Such neither-nor half measures might well be the worst approach possible, gaining neither stability in Afghanistan nor the minimum security we need to dishonorably abandon that country.

Sure, it might work. So might ignoring the Taliban and sending the drones after Zawahiri. So might the strategy I would like to see: One last try at getting nation-building right, involving a lot more troops, a lot more economic development, a lot more wisdom, and a much more realistic policy toward Pakistan. But again, we don't know. We can't know yet, because nothing has really been tried. So the prize seems a bit premature. Jimmy Carter got a peace treaty and diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, and the return of the Sinai. He had to wait thirty years for the call from Oslo.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe the more absurd and bizarre it is, the more of a kick in the pants it is to the Bush presidency, of late, unlamented memory. This is how much we hate you, George; anyone who comes after you will win the Nobel prize, just for not being you. This may be satisfying to some. It is rather childish, however. And a poor use of the power of the prize.

Here are a few of the other reported finalists for 2009:

  • Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, a man of almost unbelievable courage in standing up to the thug regime of president-for-life Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai withdrew from last year's runoff election for president, even though he would surely have won a fair ballot, because, he said, he could not ask his supporters to risk their lives for any cause, not even for democracy; and certainly not for his, Tsvangirai's, election; although he himself risks his life for the freedom of his fellow citizens every day. Since that canceled election, his wife of more than 30 years, Susan, was killed in an automobile "accident" in which Tsvangirai himself was also injured; and his three-year-old grandson, Shaun, "accidentally" drowned in a swimming pool. Tsvangirai's withdrawal from the election was the kind of act that will always separate men of conscience like himself from bullies like Mugabe.

  • Hu Jia of China, a human rights and democracy advocate who has paid dearly for his desire for freedom. He's presently serving a three and a half year prison sentence for "inciting subversion of state power."

  • Dr. Sima Samar of Afghanistan, a physician who has set up medical services for refugees, and who served as Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs until she was driven from office by the death threats she had earned through being insufficiently cowed by the demands of Islam (she questioned the legitimacy of Shari'a law, and of customs that kept women isolated, ignorant, and powerless.) She is now the chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (not a safe job) and is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan.

But - not the year for any of these good people. More important to lift up a president of dubious international achievements, whose legacy in regard to war and peace we may not know for years, in order to confirm the Nobel committee's insular and naive beliefs about the world.

I wish that were all there was to it. But am I the only one who found something vaguely sinister in the statement by Thorbjorn Jagland, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who said "We would hope this will enhance what he (Obama) is trying to do." Is this really the role of the Nobels - to influence policy? If so - and remember that there's a $1.4 million cash prize attached to the honor - it could be considered an illegal interference with the United States' exercise of sovereign power in the conduct of its foreign policy.

Wouldn't it be great if Obama were to refuse the prize? That would surely be even more astonishing, and even more worthy of acclaim, than the award. He could point out that initiatives are one thing, and results another, and that he will wait for results before accepting accolades. He could also mention the fact that the United States of America does not need guidance or "enhancement" of its policies by a private foreign committee. And he could do a lot of good by drawing public attention to the causes of the other finalists.

Imagine how that would confound his fanatical right-wing opponents; how popular - and how empowering - it would be at home. And political confidence at home is an important aspect of power and influence abroad; which might, actually, help Obama to accomplish something that would be important in securing world peace at some point down the road.

Second media check of the day: "Mr. Obama said he was 'surprised and deeply humbled' by the committee's decision, and quickly put to rest any speculation that he might not accept the honor."