If wishes were prizes, they might add up to the once-prestigious award that was bestowed on President Barack Obama this morning. In what sounded initially like a send-up of his inflated celerity, Obama – on the job for all of nine months and with no accomplishments of note to his credit – was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for seemingly nothing more than the political aspirations of global unity and “hope” on which he has yet to deliver.
The official rationale for the prize, according to the Swedish Nobel Committee, was Obama’s work to strengthen international diplomacy and eliminate nuclear weapons. But given that Obama has to date done nothing at all to further these goals – and, indeed, may have hindered the latter by indulging Iran in its dogmatic pursuit of a nuclear weapon – this appeared to be little more than high-minded window dressing. Insofar as the Nobel committee cited any tangible accomplishment by the American president, it was to laud him for capturing “the world’s attention” and giving people “hope for a better for future.” In essence, Obama has been honored for his campaign rhetoric.
Obama is not the first sitting American president to be awarded the Nobel, but he is the least deserving. Theodore Roosevelt received the prize in 1906, and Woodrow Wilson won in 1919. Yet both these presidential predecessors had done something to warrant the distinction: Roosevelt was acknowledged for successfully negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese war; Wilson for founding the League of Nations and formulating the Treaty of Versailles. Whatever the long-term merit of these achievements – the League of Nations is now widely considered a failure – they could be considered real contributions to world peace at the time of their recognition. No such claim can be made on behalf of the Obama administration’s policies.
So conspicuously thin is Obama’s in-office résumé that even some on the Left professed shock at the committee’s selection. Writing at The Daily Beast, Peter Beinart pointed out that honoring Obama on the basis of a few speeches was a backhanded confirmation of the conservative critique of his presidency:
I like Barack Obama as much as the next liberal, but this is a farce. He’s done nothing to deserve the prize. Sure, he’s given some lovely speeches and launched some initiatives—on Iran, Israeli-Palestinian peace, climate change and nuclear disarmament—that might, if he’s really lucky and really good, make the world a more safe, more just, more peaceful world. But there’s absolutely no way to know if he’ll succeed, and by giving him the Nobel Prize as a kind of “atta boy,” the Nobel Committee is actually just highlighting the gap that conservatives have long highlighted: between Obamamania as global hype and Obama’s actual accomplishments.
Indeed, it seems Obama’s chief accomplishment, in the Nobel Committee’s eyes, is that he is not George W. Bush. Thus, without naming Bush directly, committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said, “Look at the level of confrontation we had just a few years ago. Now we get a man who is not only willing but probably able to open dialogue and strengthen international institutions.” Elsewhere, the committee praised Obama for creating a “new climate in international politics,” one in which “multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position.” The message was clear: Obama is not Bush.
Never mind that the Bush administration repeatedly sought multilateral solutions to foreign crises, whether in its fruitless attempt to secure UN cooperation against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or in its commitment to working with European powers to contain Iran’s nuclear program. Never mind, too, that the Bush administration did more than its successor, at least so far, to cut nuclear weapons stockpiles. In the end, its party affiliation was uncongenial to the Nobel Committee, which has devolved into a rubber stamp for the correct (read: liberal) politics. It is no coincidence that, of the three prominent American politicians to win the Nobel in the past decade, all, including Obama, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, have been Democrats.
Even worse than the blatant partisanship of the committee, the Nobel has become a missed opportunity to honor the truly deserving. There was no shortage of such choices among this year’s nominees, who included the likes Hu Jia, the Chinese dissident serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term on trumped-up charges of “incitement to subvert state power”; Morgan Tsvangirai, the longtime foe of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe who has suffered relentless harassment from the regime’s thugs, and whose wife was killed this March in a suspicious car accident that occurred just days after he had become prime minister in a power sharing deal; and Sima Simar, the Afghan human-rights activist whose campaign to bring attention to the plight of Afghan women, as well as her outspoken opposition to Islamic practices requiring women to be kept in seclusion and to wear the burqa have made her a target for Taliban terrorists. All have done more than President Obama to advance the cause of human rights. All could have used the recognition and financial resources that come with the prize more than the articulate but unaccomplished leader of the world’s most powerful country.
It is, of course, not President Obama’s fault that he was chosen for the award, and he was appropriately humble in his acceptance. “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize,” the president said, observing that he did not view it “as a recognition of my own accomplishments.” And it’s hard to credit the claim that this year’s choice has diminished the award – an award whose past recipients, after all, have included unrepentant terrorist Yasir Arafat. But even by these historically low standards, the 2009 award was unique: It provided a reason to dismiss the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize even for those who like its winner.