Readers who have followed this writer’s commentaries on the political machinations of the 44th president are by now well aware that I never quite bought into the whole Barack Obama thing. He has been and is a fascinating politician to cover. I’ve enjoyed the interviews I’ve done with him. I respect Obama’s intellect and discipline. I think he has remarkable political skills. I am more skeptical, however, with regard to his governing skills. And I am downright disappointed with his failure to recognize the purpose and the potential of the mandate he was given by the American electorate a year ago.
Obama has not moved quickly enough to end the occupation of Iraq and he has bought into the absurd lie that the occupation of Afghanistan is some kind of “good war” – or, at the least, a necessary one.
Obama has compromised on civil liberties and constitutional questions when this former constitutional law professor should have reintroduced America to the absolute principles of our founding – especially the wisdom of a system of checks and balances that constrains the imperial ambitions of our presidents.
Obama has put the wrong people in charge of the economy and pulled his punches when it comes to reregulating the banks. He supported an auto-industry “bailout” that has the federal government paying multinational corporations to close factories in the United States and open them overseas. And don’t get me started on the mangling of health-care reform.
So why not join the chorus of critics on the right and the left who object to the Nobel committee’s decision to award a freshman president what remains the most important international recognition of individual accomplishment?
Because, much as I might like to pen a piece with a snappy headline like Guardian writer Michael White’s “I Hope Nobel Members Feel Pleased With Themselves, The Smug Idiots,” I can’t.
It is not that I disagree with the point White makes about giving the award to a president in the 37th week of his tenure: “It is hard to imagine a more effective way to undermine him both at home and abroad.”
But, frankly, if accepting a peace prize makes it harder for Obama to wage unnecessary wars, maintain irresponsible occupations or support bloated Pentagon budgets, so be it.
I should add that I certainly do not buy into all this talk about the Nobel Prize being some kind of “aspirational award.” By this absurd logic, the prize should go to the crudest dictators – tough call this year, although the thugs in Myanmar are certainly competitive — on the theory that international accolades might shame them into behaving themselves.
No, the Nobel Peace Prize is and should always be given with the purpose of honoring action not aspiration. The whole point of the award is to recognize bold, presumably courageous, endeavors in pursuit of a more peaceful and functional planet.
It is against this standard that the award to Obama should be measured.
To my view, he measures up.
I may have plenty of complaints about the man and his presidency. But I believe that Barack Obama did something that merits his selection as the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
I am not talking here about an official act taken since he replaced the lamentable George Bush – although an argument can be made that replacing Bush’s reign of error is sufficient accomplishment.What I’m talking about is actually something Obama did before his election – in fact, before his nomination as the Democratic Party’s 2008 standard-bearer.
In those cattle-call presidential debates of 2007, Barack Obama staked out a position that was radically at odds with the lingering post-9/11 consensus among the American political and media elites. As a serious contender for the nomination – a candidate who had something to lose — Obama declared for diplomacy.
In the July, 2007, “YouTube Debate,” the Democratic candidates were asked if they would be willing to meet “with leaders of Syria, Iran, Venezuela” during their first term.Obama responded that, yes, he would be willing to do so. He explained that “the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this (Bush) administration — is ridiculous.”
He was right.
But he was immediately attacked for rejecting the “principle” – rooted in the Cold War but renewed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – that American foreign policy should continue to be conducted behind the tattered curtain of corruption that has given us unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Iraq, U.S.-sponsored coups from Iran to Chile, trade policies designed to serve multinational corporations and a seeming inability to hold up the banner of human rights or even humanity in Tibet, Darfur, Burma and so many other woefully neglected corners of the world.
Obama was immediately and savagely attacked by those who continued to embrace the Henry Kissinger approach to international relations.Hillary Clinton, at that point still the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, led the charge.
“There is a clear difference between the two approaches these candidates are taking: Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office,” declared Clinton, who made it clear that she did not intend to be go out on any diplomatic limbs. (Ironically, she did not imagine that she might be doing so as Obama’s Secretary of State.)
The pundits piled on. Obama, we were told, had revealed his inexperience. He was naïve. He was out-of-touch with “security moms” and other frightened Americans who wanted their leaders to speak loudly and swing big sticks.
In fact, Obama was entirely in touch with the American people, who had grown increasingly wary of the secretive and anti-democratic approach to global affairs that steered the United States out of the global community while telling the American people that foreign policy was the domain only of shadowy Kissingers and Cheneys.
Obama’s nomination and election reflected that fact.
But, at the critical stage in the 2008 campaign, Obama did not know that declaring for diplomacy would prove to be politically smart. It required a level of courage that had been missing from American politics at the highest levels for a relatively new, largely untested candidate to take the stand he did. And that courage had an impact, ultimately moving other prominent Democrats – including Clinton – and even some Republicans toward more conciliatory stances.
Elections matter. They are the points at which countries stretch the parameters of their debates and, ideally, reform and renew themselves. But progress is only possible when prominent politicians break the mold, when they take risks that may cost them the political prizes they are so ardently pursuing.
Obama did that in the summer of 2007. And he did it on behalf of diplomacy. He argued that it was better to talk than to heighten tensions until there was no alternative to war.
It was a transformational moment for Obama’s party, and ultimately for the politics of the world’s dominant military superpower.
How transformational remains to be seen.
But there is more than enough justification in Obama’s campaigning for the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, for those who recognize how very rare it is for prominent politicians to take risks when it comes to national security debates, Obama is an entirely legitimate recipient of the peace prize.
Like most recipients who attain the peace prize while they are still operating on the global stage in an official manner, Obama will call that legitimacy into question.
This is why it would be ridiculous to honor Obama (or any other president or prime minister) for what he might do during the remainder of his term.
Obama is being honored for what he did as a contender for the presidency — a contender whose winning run changed the political debate in a party and a country that desperately needed to take a new direction. As such, he is not merely worthy. Barack Obama, the candidate, is the right recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace.