Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Dissonance

Part of the reason I have found this story so engaging is that to a large degree, the responses of various commentators has been unpredictable. Well sure, there's Rush...
But barring any late entries, Rush Limbaugh's Quote of the Day will be tough to forget. "I think that everybody is laughing. Our president is a world-wide joke," the radio host said. "Folks, do you realize something has happened here that we all agree with the Taliban and Iran about and that is he doesn't deserve the award. Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something with the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban." quoted in Washington Monthly. Golly, I seem to remember a time not all that long ago when being on the same side as the Taliban and Iran was supposed to be a bad thing. Speaking of "Golly," Dr. Zaius provided some video of Rush reacting to the news:

It turns out, oddly enough, that the clearest explanation comes from the Nobel Prize Committee itself.
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.
And EB Misfit points out that the prize has, in the past, been given to strengthen a position of moral authority, rather than great accomplishments.
Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for winning an election to be prime minister of Burma and then being denied the office. The Nobel Peace Prize is often awarded to give people moral authority, not for a long record.
Even given all that, I share the discomfort of many, in that it just seems too much too soon. Der Spiegel had a very good commentary piece yesterday. I would suggest that if you're fed up with this story this opinion piece is still worth the time:
Awarding him the Nobel Prize now is like giving a medal to a marathon runner who has just managed the first few kilometers. The situation in Iraq is still fragile; in Afghanistan, it has even got worse. Despite the massive efforts by the US administration, there seems little immediate prospect of reaching a compromise between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. The Iranian regime is still playing its nuclear games with the West at the diplomatic level, while at home one dissident after another is put on the scaffold. A nuclear-armed Pakistan looks close to collapse, while in North Korea, Dr. Strangelove is stroking his bomb.

The most surprise at Oslo's decision will be felt in the US itself.
The general theme of the above article is that the prize will be more of a burden than an honor or mark of authority. Yet I was still pleasantly surprised that some I might have expected to go all wing-nut were in fact quite gracious. For example, Elizabeth Hovde, one of OregonLive's in-house conservative commentators had this to say:
The committee clearly has -- both now and in the past -- taken a broad interpretation of Nobel's vision for the prize. Instead of going to recipients for their peace mediation efforts, the prize has been given to people for other worthy deeds, such as fighting poverty or bringing progress to environmental issues.
At the same time, Obama's detractors can take comfort in the fact that Americans are really the winners in Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Without a doubt, people around the world are, by and large, happier with America and more hopeful about its relationships with their own countries as a result of last year's presidential election. He has had a positive impact and that is good for Americans.

And Obama opponents should give the president a break. After all, he didn't force this prize upon himself. And even if people disagree with the committee's wisdom in sending the Nobel Peace Prize his way, most would have to agree that he reacted to the surprising news in a way worthy of admiration and respect.
And many more-or-less liberal writers seem more strongly convinced than I that this prize is undeserved for the time being:
President Obama's only real diplomatic accomplishment so far has been to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy from unilateral bullying to multilateral listening and cooperating. That's important, to be sure, but not nearly enough. The Prize is really more of a Booby Prize for Obama's predecessor. Had the world not suffered eight years of George W. Bush, Obama would not be receiving the Prize. He's prizeworthy and praiseworthy only by comparison.
The BBC seems to be saying that, in fact, simply being "not Bush" is strong enough qualification for the award.
As so often, the mystery clears up if you bother to read the text, in this case the citation. The committee praises him for intentions that were key to his whole campaign. It singles out working through the United Nations, for putting the emphasis on negotiations, international diplomacy and co-operation, for creating a new climate in international politics. In other words, because he's not President George W Bush and has steered American foreign policy, or at least its strategy if not its aims, in an opposite direction.
I did find it interesting that in an online poll at The Guardian, the numbers were not supportive of Obama's win. Fair disclosure: I voted "no" to see the results, but was pretty conflicted about it.
By the time I got to some of the NYT articles, they didn't add much to my understanding or thinking about the issue, but I do think they raise a fair point here:
Several prominent Nobel observers in Oslo said the Nobel committee had put the integrity of the award at stake. But Mr. Jagland seemed to savor the risk. He said no one could deny that “the international climate” had suddenly improved, and that Mr. Obama was the main reason.
But of course, the meaningfulness of the Peace Prize has been questioned many times, even in my memory (think Henry Kissinger). And the right certainly condemned Jimmy Carter's win seven years ago.

One of the most interesting takes was from an astronomy and physics blog, Cosmic Variance, arguing that Obama deserved the prize for his commitment to rationality and science.
From the scientific perspective, Obama has had tremendous impact (the Peace Prize singles out his “constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting”). His appointees are first-rate, and there is a feeling that we are finally starting to move in the right direction. It is hard, of course, to point to tangible scientific results that have arisen because of Obama. There simply hasn’t been time enough. But this does not negate his impact; the momentum is apparent and encouraging. It is a similar story in international diplomacy. Obama also benefits from eight preceding years of Bush. Within the scientific community, the Bush administration represented a dark age. Any subsequent reasonable policy would seem to be enlightened. Thus to have a truly exceptional policy, informed by actual science and scientists (instead of cynical political aims), has a profound effect on the state of affairs. It is a similar story in international diplomacy.
In this context, giving the Peace Prize to Obama is an inspired choice. They are hoping to give him more stature and leverage to help him achieve his goals; they want to help make the world a better place. It affirms the importance of American leadership on the world stage, and endorses our President’s vision of a world at peace. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should celebrate this.
And the State Department's take was pretty inspired:
"Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum — when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes."

That's the take of Hillary Clinton's State Department on President Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, according to her spokesman, Assistant Secretary PJ Crowley.
So in the end, I still don't really have a strong stance. I feel it's early, and that there's plenty of time for him to show the world what he's got. Though it dawned on me yesterday that the Noble is never given posthumously, and seeing the rabid right, the committee members may in fact be worried. Grim, yes, but realistic. On the other hand, what is being held up for attention is an entirely different approach to wielding American power: negotiation and discussion, cooperation and multi-lateralism rather than bluster and threats, ultimatums and exceptionalism. And while it may simply amount to being "not Bush," it's a relief to me, and apparently much of the world. Further, as pointed out by Brian in a comment to the Nobel post yesterday, this could be seen as a peace prize for the American Voter who chose not to elect "not 'not Bush'" in the form of McCain and Palin. If that's the case, let me offer my sincere congratulations to Obama, and with grace and humility, accept my tiny nubbin of credit.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Excellent summary! Thanks for sifting through mounds of media to post this.