Like most people around the world today, I was shocked when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award its Peace Prize to our own Barack Obama. (The Peace Prize is the only Nobel prize not awarded in Sweden.) The announcement was immediately greeted with gasps of dismay and hoots of disapprobation which, starting in Oslo, rippled across the globe in a matter of minutes. When a friend in Europe informed me early this morning, I at first thought he was joking, or that some internet hoax had gone viral. But the news proved all too true.
It is not the first time the Committee has raised a few eyebrows. The Prize has had a sometimes checkered history. Some of its past laureates include Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, names that are seldom synonymous with peace. Even Adolph Hitler was nominated in 1939 (after he had annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia); Stalin and Mussolini were also nominees (that does not mean of course that they had any chance of winning). Sometimes the prize has gone to selfless individuals who have devoted their entire lives to peace, such as Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At other times the Committee has seemed merely to reward the positive steps of previously recalcitrant enemies of peace.
In his will Alfred Nobel stated that the prize should go “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.” Sometimes it seems the Committee has been willing to reward anything that even slightly resembles any of the above. In its statement this morning the Committee cited Mr. Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and referenced his steps toward global nuclear disarmament. But still one can’t help shaking one’s head and asking if this isn’t all just a big misunderstanding, perhaps some translator’s gaffe. A strange dream after eating too much lutevisk.
Mr. Obama has genuine star quality, most on both sides of the aisle will admit, but he hasn’t really done anything. He is certainly a gifted rhetorician; his speeches have inspired hope across the globe. But concrete action he sadly lacks. In fact, looking at what he has said and what he has actually done, one sees a deep and at times shocking disparity.
Of course, he has reached out to the Islamic world with an irenic speech that raised the hopes of millions of Muslims worldwide, and raised them still further by holding Israel’s feet to the fire over settlements, only to dash them to earth with his helping to scuttle the Goldstone Report. In his campaign he spoke of “rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus,” but has instead chosen to continue and even attempt to legalize the worst of the Bush era policies, including the institution of “preventive detention.” He promised to close Guantanamo and has moved the problem thousands of miles to Bagram, away from prying eyes. He promised more “transparent government,” but when it comes to evidence of torture, his administration has plead executive privilege and national security.
In addition, our troops are still in Iraq; he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, sending in more troops; he has increased drone attacks inside Pakistan, killing hundreds of women and children; and he is now threatening Iran with violence if they do not bend to our will. In short he promised “change,” but his policies in practice have differed so little from his predecessor’s, the only change we have seen in reality is the nameplate on the Oval Office door. These are hardly the actions of a man of peace.
I’ve been racking my brain all day and I think I finally understand the reason for this conundrum. Perhaps in bestowing this award the Nobel Committee really means to praise Mr. Obama for something that may indeed be his most significant and only achievement so far. In reestablishing a more collegial relationship among our allies, in not ignoring the United Nations entirely and at least “talking peace,” he has shown he possesses one highly important quality: he is not George W. Bush. And for that, Mr. President, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on behalf of a war-weary humanity, wishes to extend a hearty takk (thanks).