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Saturday, October 10, 2009

stuck in a moment you can't get out of

I love President Obama. Last year I volunteered for him in Pennsylvania, I took on extra work so that I could contribute more to his campaign, and, as we all know, I took the middle name Hussein for nine months. I would even take the assassin's bullet for him if it came down to it. That is how strongly I believe that the world needs his unique talents. But even I have to admit that he does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, not yet anyway.

Now that he has won, what are we to think? Others have won the prize without deserving it, chief among them the unconvicted American war criminal Henry Kissinger (1973). Such comparisons are preposterous and insulting. Nothing that Kissinger could ever do could wash the blood from his hands. (I can think of a few others in that category.)

The better comparison is to Oscar Arias (1987), president of Costa Rica. Arias, who again became president in 2006, is probably the greatest statesman that Central America has produced in our lifetime, although I admit the competition is not great. In the 1990s I heard him speak very astutely at Dartmouth about international development and the neo-colonial wealth transfers caused by Third World debt, an issue later popularised by Bono of U2. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a multi-nation peace plan for Central America. The only problem was that the plan never went into effect. Arias essentially won the prize for something that might have been.

The Nobel committee does that sometimes: they will use the award in order to help push something into being. Thorbjorn Jagland, the Nobel committee chairman, said as much in today's New York Times:
"It's important for the committee to recognize people who are struggling and idealistic," Mr. Jagland said in an interview after the prize was announced, "but we cannot do that every year. We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world."
I'm assuming that Obama was an instance of 'realpolitik', not someone 'struggling and idealistic', but who knows?

Whatever the case, the Nobel committee's statement on this year's peace prize does make some cogent points. Here it is in part:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
Premature or not, the committee is factually correct—Obama has done what they say—yet I can't help but read the invisible words 'Unlike Bush' at the start of the second paragraph.

Obama's public statement about winning the prize reminded me of the title of a U2 song, 'Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of'. Saying he was 'both surprised and deeply humbled' and that he did not deserve the honour, Obama looked genuinely uncomfortable. Tonight, the homepage of the White House's website almost wholly ignores the award. I had to use my web browser's Find command to locate the word 'Nobel' on the page. Here it is, in the sub-headline to a story about the Obamas' dog.

Many American conservatives are griping about Obama's Nobel, just as they cheered last week when the International Olympic Committee chose not to award the 2016 summer Olympics to the U.S. Wingnuts aside, who in the world has reason to regret Obama's award? The three governments most at odds with Obama's diplomatic goals: Iran, Israel, and Russia. If the award strengthens Obama's hand on the world stage, the Israeli government will have a harder time resisting Obama's calls to end settlements in the West Bank and to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Perhaps that was the 'realpolitik' on the committee's minds.

Who then does deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009? By coincidence, I was in the presence, albeit at great distance, of a leading candidate just a few hours ago at a rock concert by the band U2. Yes, Bono deserves the peace prize. He has involved and educated people around the world in movements for human rights and debt reduction; he has raised money for antiretrovirals in Africa; he has added the relief of suffering to the agendas of international meetings of the world's most powerful governments; and his work as a singer and songwriter imbues millions with the spirit of peace and love that we all want to believe is the foundation of rock and roll. Their music makes me feel the spirit, and I don't even believe in spirits. The prize has been issued at least once before to someone whose main achievements were in the arts and humanities: Elie Wiesel (1986). The only problem with giving it to Bono would be that his ego would grow so large that it would block out the sun and cause worldwide destruction.

I can't say I mind that Obama won the prize. I just think the Nobel committee did him no favour by giving it to him before the great achievements that may or may not lie ahead. Those who believe that Obama won the presidency on the flimsy basis of a few eloquent speeches will seize the award as Exhibit A.

Filmmaker Michael Moore released a clever statement at his website today: Congratulations President Obama on the Nobel Peace Prize—Now Please Earn It! For everyone's sake, I hope he does. In the meanwhile, the Nobel committee should avoid premature salutations. I don't like being stuck with having to admit that the conservatives are right.

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Anonymous Kaitlin said...

"The only problem with giving it to Bono would be that his ego would grow so large that it would block out the sun and cause worldwide destruction."

I loved the mental image that gave me.

11:52 AM, October 10, 2009

Anonymous 42 said...

I agree with you. You have stated (eloquently, I might add) what many of us who admire President Obama are thinking. He does not deserve it. He has not brought our troops home from Iraq. The recent policy statements of the administration, with respect to Afghanistan/Pakistan, are laughable. His call for a two state solution of the Palestinian problem is not new and as usual is not backed with the possibility of sanctions against Israel. Other than call for nuclear stockpile reductions, what has he done to implement same?

While I truly believe he will accomplish many things to make our planet a safer, cleaner and more peaceful place by the time his eight years are over, as of now, nothing has been accomplished. The award has not been earned. It would have been like giving Jim Carroll a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award after his first album. The body of work did not live up to the promise.

On the subject of U2, while I greatly enjoy their music, I am not a rabid fan. However, I submit that they are the most influential band since the Beatles.

12:52 PM, October 10, 2009

Anonymous Not a Burping Sandinista said...

We have allowed the wingnuts to gain some traction in the deserve/not deserve debate because we have let them frame the issue solely in terms of the Obama Administration. Did our man not spend over a year campaigning for issues completely worthy of the award before he took office? It would be a mistake, I think, to discount the effect his campaign had on our nation and the world.

1:08 PM, October 10, 2009

Anonymous 42 said...

Burping Sandinista has made my point. President Obama's WORDS during and after the campaign have been noteworthy for their promise of a better planet. His ACTIONS in that regard, leave much to be desired. I wish it weren't so. I still believe in him.

1:19 PM, October 10, 2009

Anonymous Not a Burping Sandinista said...

The Obama campaign made a meaningful difference in many lives. And the grassroots organization that sprung from it continues to do so. I therefore take issue with 42's assessment.

Further, do words not inspire others to act?

1:24 PM, October 10, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, it's been 21 years since I last saw you but I can hear your voice perfectly in this post. Well done - I see you've lost none of the passion of your convictions and gained a very measured thoughtfulness in your writing.

San Jose, CA

3:04 AM, October 14, 2009

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Thanks for the kind words. Just so no one overestimates my age: I was a teenager twenty-one years ago. I am in my thirties, and I intend to stay there for another thirty years.

10:53 AM, October 14, 2009


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