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Weekly Commentary — Not Even Worthy of Satire — Obama’s Peace Prize

2009 October 9
by rahul

At first, I thought it was a joke. “Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize.” Then I realized it wasn’t really funny. At least when Henry Kissinger won the prize, the Nobel Committee was striking a blow for surrealism and irony. This one was just power-worship – and a pathetic, needy, clinging form of it, at that.

The only thing I can say in favor of the decision is that it’s the one thing that could have made the International Olympic Committee look good; although the IOC may have the moral stature of the Nevada Gaming Commission, at least it didn’t allow itself to be overawed by the merest contact with the aura of the Chosen One.

Obama is, of course, not a big-time war criminal like Henry Kissinger, but there’s always hope; this award comes just as Obama is on the cusp of a decision regarding escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Since he took office just nine short months ago, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have seen dramatic escalations in violence, some of it directly at his behest.

Of course, the Nobel Committee is happy that Bush is gone; so is everybody else in the world. But giving Obama the prize just for not being Bush seems excessive; why not just give it to all six plus billion of us? After all, if “you” can be TIME’s Person of the Year, why can’t “you” be a Nobel Peace laureate as well?

The citation is weak tea, indeed. He is awarded the prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy,” especially his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” In other words, he gave a few speeches. He even traveled all the way to Egypt to give one of them. Even if they were the most remarkable things in the world, they are hardly evidence of any sustained or strenuous effort, let alone of success in advancing any agenda.

Some coverage has suggested that the recent passage of Security Council Resolution 1887 against nuclear proliferation was a landmark achievement for peace. In truth, it’s utterly meaningless. It is not a Chapter VII resolution, meaning that it has no teeth. Almost the entire part dealing with general nuclear disarmament is “reaffirming” other agreements, like the Nonproliferation Treaty. It calls for everyone to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – any bets on whether the new Nobel laureate will even try to bring it up in the Senate?

For the rest, the resolution is a thinly-veiled warning to Iran, with language watered down far enough that it could get by Russia.

The committee also cites the “more constructive role” the United States is now playing on climate change; perhaps Khrushchev should have gotten the prize for the “more constructive role” of the Soviet state with respect to the gulag. Or, for that matter, Obama could have gotten it for his “more constructive role” in, apparently, ending America’s brief flirtation with legalized torture. Going from being a major obstructionist on climate change to being a minor obstructionist is hardly worthy of this sort of recognition.

Anticipating the obvious objections, Thorboern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, stressed that the award was given for work already done by Obama, but there were several hints that the prize was given as an inducement for future actions.

If so, the Norwegians are making a big mistake. Although Obama is the most remarkable person to occupy the White House in a long time, some of his moral failings have become very apparent. Foremost among them is a tendency toward complacency and a type of moral narcissism, conflating the admittedly inspiring trajectory of his life with actual achievement in changing the world for the better (this became particularly tiresome late in the campaign). Indeed, so focused is he on how wonderful it is that he could have achieved what he did that he generally seems to have very little room for anger on behalf of the dispossessed – however he conceives them. Robert Kennedy obviously never thought much about Vietnamese peasants burned out of their houses, but he was passionately indignant about the plight of the poor in Appalachia.

This prize will just exacerbate his worst tendencies. How easy it will be for him to conclude that winning the Nobel Peace Prize actually constitutes genuine accomplishment in working for peace. Given that even the small steps he has taken, like mentioning the suffering of the Palestinians in his Cairo address, were flashes in the pan, without any actual sustained effort to back them up, how much less likely is he to start making real efforts now?

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