Friday, October 9, 2009

The Oslo Surprise: President Barack Obama wins the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

Early this morning, US time, an Oslo, Norway press conference announced President Barack Obama as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient. One report noted that the announcement was met with an audible gasp from the assembled members of the fourth estate.

When CBS News contacted the White House Press Secretary about the announcement, his sole comment was “wow.” Now that is the perfect White House response to breaking developments: short and definitive.

World-wide, the response to the news has been widely varied and immediate. Reports are that the widely held opinion on Twitter is that he won for not being George Bush. Perhaps there is an element of truth to that.

One frequent response, both domestically and abroad, is that the award is being bestowed prematurely, that it might have been better to wait a year or two (or more) to better judge the long-term results of his efforts and words. I am somewhat inclined to agree, given that he has yet to finish his first year in office and Afghanistan remains an unresolved political and military mess. One question that several have raised asks if this is Europe’s way of asking him to not commit more forces to the Afghanistan conflict. Those who ask this do have a point: is escalating a war that appears to have no exit strategy an action a Nobel Peace Laureate would do?

In Washington, D.C., U.S. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele naturally was dismissive of the honor. This puts him on the same page as Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman and Zabihullah Majahid, spokesman for the Taliban, speaking from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.

Former US Vice President Al Gore, the 2007 peace prize recipient, feels it will take some time for him to assemble all of the pieces of his foreign policy together. This is where the prematurity of this award becomes the most easily seen. In light of his U.N. speech calling for an end to nuclear weapons and his decision against deploying a missile shield system in Eastern Europe, the US itself needs to be seen to be following his lofty words. The world will not even begin to be nuke free until the US is nuke free. As long as this country possesses even one nuclear warhead, the rest of the world cannot be asked to complete their nuclear disarmaments.

I do agree with 1983 Nobel Peace Laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa, whose response was "So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act."This is probably an encouragement for him to act. Let's see if he perseveres. Let's give him time to act."

Unlike the Afghani Taliban, the Iraqi government welcomed the award. In Bagdad, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni Muslim lawmaker, told Reuters: "Obama succeeded in making a real change in the policy of the United States -- a change from a policy that was exporting evil to the world to a policy exporting peace and stability to the world."

Similarly, Masdar Mas’udi, deputy head of Nahdatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization praised the award when he said "I think it's appropriate because he is the only American president who has reached out to us in peace. On the issues of race, religion, skin colour, he has an open attitude."

These positive Muslim reactions to the news are, in themselves, welcome signs. Clearly, more and more leaders are seeing a significant change in the face the United States is showing other countries. In this way, the Obama Administration is succeeding at its effort to distance itself from its predecessor. Indeed, I see Mr. Mas’udi’s remarks as a direct barb at former President Bush, whose attitude consistently seemed to be “if you’re Muslim, you’re a terrorist.”

Whether President Obama deserves this honor, and whether it is being awarded prematurely, are issues I do not feel qualified to definitively opine upon. Indeed, debate on this point will continue for possibly many months to come because the international situation will remain unsettled into 2010 and, most likely, beyond.

Undetermined at this point in time, but of definite concern to many, is the domestic fall out from this award. In all likelihood it will embolden the Conservative Republicans to resist his domestic agenda proposals with increased fervor. In particular, there is a chance that this honor could actually doom the public option in health care reform simply because the President favors it. I hope it doesn’t. However, American politics can be perverse in that way.

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