The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.
Some initial commentary has called the award unprecedented and wondered why the committee would give President Obama the award when he "hasn't done anything yet."
But anyone who thinks this award is unprecedented hasn't been paying attention.
The Nobel Committee gave South African Bishop Desmond Tutu the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership of efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid wasn't fully abolished in South Africa until 1994. The committee could have waited until after apartheid was abolished to say, "Well done!" But the point of the award was to help bring down apartheid by strengthening Bishop Tutu's efforts. In particular, everyone knew that it was going to be much harder for the apartheid regime to crack down on Tutu after the Nobel Committee wrapped him in its protective cloak of world praise.
That's what the Nobel Committee is trying to do for Obama now. It's giving an award to encourage the change in world relations that Obama has promised, and to try to help shield Obama against his domestic adversaries. The committee is well aware that history is contingent and that Obama might fail. It knows very well that the same country that elected Obama also gave the world George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
The initial steps that Obama has taken are already under fierce attack. The Obama administration has now recognized that the Afghan Taliban are not a threat to the United States and that the United States can live with the Afghan Taliban playing a role in the government of Afghanistan. But right-wing forces in the military, Congress, think thanks and the media are denouncing these moves towards sanity as surrender. They want a full-out Vietnam against the Taliban.
The Obama Administration has begun its promised diplomatic engagement with Iran. Of course, as every honest person knew, real engagement meant de-emphasizing the unachievable demand that Iran end its enrichment of uranium and instead focusing on achievable demands like opening Iranian enrichment facilities more fully to UN inspections and greater international oversight over the enriched uranium that Iran has already produced. Here also, the "endless war" right-wing is trying to undermine Obama.
In giving this award, the Nobel Committee is telling these right-wing forces to back off. And it's sending a message of encouragement to those Americans who put Obama in office:
"Showing signs of significant improvement. Keep up the good work."