The Nobel Gesture

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, October 14, 2009)


For a prize commemorating peace efforts, the Nobel Committee’s selection of Barack Obama sure set off a war of words.

Given the reaction of the pundit class in the days following the announcement, one would think the president had agreed to accept the Iron Cross or that he’d spent taxpayer money campaigning for the award. Worse, the hyperbole didn’t come simply from partisan forces.

This is not to say President Obama should or shouldn’t have won the award. Frankly, this was a year with no shortage of deserving candidates. Morgan Tsvangirai, who at great personal risk stood up against the underrated evil that is Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe, springs immediately to mind. So does the perennially deserving 14th Dalai Lama, whose message of freedom only grows more important as China continues to assert itself as a world power and other nations fear alienating the world’s largest country. There are worthy choices among the Iranians who took the streets in their fight for democracy, the Afghans working against voter fraud, or the NGOs trying to save lives in Darfur. For all Obama’s promise, he has a lot left to do — and he, to his credit, is the first to acknowledge that.

Just as the camel is mocked as a horse designed by committee, however, the Peace Prize winner is chosen from countless nominees by a mere five-person team. Whether Obama is the best choice or not, he is certainly a reasonable enough choice. He reacted to the announcement with the proper respect and a sober analysis, calling himself “surprised and humbled” and saying he would treat the award as “a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.”

Such sobriety was noticeably absent from his critics’ responses. The Republican National Committee, in one of the more restrained criticisms, mocked Obama as receiving the award merely for “awesomeness,” while George Will said he won for having “the values and attitudes shared by the majority of the world’s population.” The morning of the announcement, Associated Press correspondent Jennifer Loven — a reporter, not a columnist — ended her piece by saying the Nobel Committee “had the audacity to hope he’ll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.” Even Time, which usually tries to stay above such silliness, included a snarky photo essay with a Photoshopped Obama accepting other awards such as the Cy Young and an MTV prize.

Others made the ludicrous suggestion that Obama winning so early in his presidency somehow cheapens the award. Bob Schieffer of CBS used his final comment on Sunday morning to say the committee’s decision would change “the way we look at the prize.” Maureen Dowd suggested that a peace prize Gandhi never won can’t be taken seriously anyway. (Ignoring, by the way, the 1948 Peace Prize that was left vacant because Gandhi was murdered days before the announcement and the rules governing the prize specifically prevent it from going to the deceased). That’s as silly as saying it diminishes Katherine Hepburn or Robert DeNiro that Eminem and Ben Affleck have Oscars, or that the 1927 Yankees are lesser because the 1997 Marlins also won a World Series. Besides, even if that were true, Henry Kissinger has a Nobel, which would forever moot that argument.

It got worse. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat demanded that Obama turn down the prize, a gesture that would only counteract the positive image the president has generated abroad — an image crucial to his future accomplishments in foreign policy. Time’s David Von Drehele suggested that the Cold War threat of mutually assured destruction was the real winner, with a piece titled “Why the Nobel Peace Prize Should Go to Nuclear Weapons.” In it, he argued that nuclear d├ętente prevented a revival of the widespread violence of the World Wars, treating the numerous postwar conflicts as isolated incidents rather than a pattern of the haves dominating the have-nots.

The day after the announcement, The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman took Douthat and Von Drehele up another notch, gobsmackingly suggesting Obama accept the Peace Prize on behalf of the American military as “peacekeepers” in a country they unilaterally invaded. It’s one thing for semi-repentant war-mongers such as Friedman to want to place the blame for Iraq on the Bush Administration, but claiming military personnel who were at best pawns and others who were directly complicit in that unprovoked international crime somehow deserve a Peace Prize is something out of an Orwell novel. (Literally. It’s almost verbatim Big Brother’s repeated claim that “War is Peace.”)

Others attacked the Nobel Committee itself. Bill Kristol kept up his long track record of getting everything wrong by calling the committee “anti-American” after it gave the prize to a man elected by the majority of Americans — and after several Americans received other Nobels this year for their work in other fields. Republican direct-mail “King of Spam” Richard Viguerie claimed, “It’s clear that the Marxist leaders in Europe know what most Americans don’t know — that the American president is a kindred spirit,” proving that Viguerie knows nothing of Europe or of the Marxism its leaders don’t practice.

These kind of arguments unwittingly underscore why Obama, again, is a reasonable choice for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As poll after poll demonstrates, Americans famously forget their history, and there’s been a collective desire to just forget the past eight years and move on. Some of the loudest cheers on Obama’s inauguration day came when President Bush’s chopper spirited him out of Washington and brought those years to a close. But for America to return to its place as one of the leaders of the free world, the recent past must be confronted and rejected.

Had voters chosen an inanimate piece of wood last November, they would have advanced the cause of peace simply by not replicating the Bush years. And America’s share size and stake in world affairs means that’s a disproportionate impact. Those were years of illegal warfare with made-up causes, violated arms treaties, for-profit militarization, continued occupation of allies worldwide, torture abroad and illegal detention at home. The best arguments against Obama receiving the prize came from the left, where critics noted he is still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and has moved more slowly than expected in shutting down torture sites, prosecuting American war criminals and closing unneeded bases. Still, Obama has started down the right path, with the upcoming closure of Guantanamo Bay, the drawdown in Iraq and — most importantly — the willingness to speak with international leaders and audiences rather than dictate to them.

Anyone who spent time abroad during the Bush years couldn’t be too surprised by the Nobel Committee’s selection of Obama. His election was celebrated on the front pages of newspapers worldwide because he fundamentally changed the perception of what is possible in America and symbolically demonstrated that America was no longer the schoolyard bully it often became under Bush. The xenophobia of the far right aside, there is no downside to the president being popular abroad. It allows him to negotiate from a position of strength, and that only benefits the United States and world security.

Perhaps the best immediate response to Obama’s win came from erstwhile opponent John McCain. “I think part of their decision-making was expectations, and I’m sure the president understands that he now has even more to live up to,” McCain told CNN. “But as Americans, we’re proud when our president receives an award of that prestigious category.”

Obama’s record is still incomplete, obviously. The award is an acknowledgement that his final grade is important far outside America’s borders.

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