Obama's Nobel win is a reflection of hope

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Like his campaign, President Barack Obama's surprising win of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday can be summed up by one word: hope.

It reflects not so much a record of accomplishment -- he has yet achieve any major foreign-policy successes -- as the yearning of the five-member prize committee that Obama is changing America's course in international affairs.

It hopes that he'll succeed in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and lead the world in curbing global warming. More broadly, it wants to cheer him on to keep reaching out to the world toward international cooperation and collaboration and away from the unilateral approach they hated in his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," Nobel Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the award Friday.

Despite Obama’s brief tenure on the job and lack of tangible results on the world stage, the Nobel Committee said that it honored the president "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

Obama said he was surprised by the award, and that he didn’t deserve it.

"I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations," he said at the White House.

"To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize, men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace."

Obama takes the prize much faster than any of the other three American presidents who've won it before him did.

Theodore Roosevelt won the 1906 prize after he interceded to negotiate peace between warring Japan and Russia. In his second term, Roosevelt brought the two sides to Portsmouth, N.H., in September 1905 and helped negotiate a peace treaty after several weeks.

Woodrow Wilson won the 1919 prize after he pushed to create the League of Nations following World War I, traveling to Europe late in his second term to negotiate.

Long after he left office in 1981, Jimmy Carter won the 2002 prize for what the committee called decades of work. As president, Carter brought Egypt and Israel together for extended talks at Camp David that produced a peace agreement. As a former president, he's traveled the globe to promote human rights, monitor elections and mediate disputes.

Obama has urged peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians but so far he's been rebuffed. On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all but dismissed the prospects of a peace agreement anytime soon. He told Israel Radio that it might be possible for the Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side without an agreement, but that there never had been such a broad peace pact "because apparently it's impossible to achieve."

Obama's lack of success so far as a peacemaker comparable to the achievements of men such as Roosevelt, Wilson and Carter prompted criticism that the award was at best premature and more a signal of encouragement than recognition.

"Too fast," said Lech Walesa, the former Polish Solidarity leader and 1983 Peace Prize winner. "He hasn’t had the time to do anything yet. For the time being, Obama's just making proposals."

"The real question Americans are asking is, 'What has President Obama actually accomplished?' " said Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."

The man thought to be a leading contender among the 205 nominees -- nominations were due Feb. 1, just days after Obama took office Jan. 20 -- was Hu Jia, a human rights activist in China who was nominated for his work on AIDS awareness and human rights, often in the face of government intimidation. Last year he received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament for his work.

Others applauded the prize's award as a sign of international support for Obama's initial moves to better relations between the United States and the rest of the world.

The president has improved U.S. standing globally as measured by polls in foreign countries, particularly after he reached out to the Muslim world in several speeches, including one from Cairo, Egypt.

"Because of him, the rest of the world is starting to see us in a more positive way. I'm very excited about this," U.S. Airman Frederick Jones said at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

"The prize signals that America is definitively back in the world's good graces, and the president deserves full credit for that," said Martin Indyk, a former official in the Clinton administration who directs foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington.

"Now comes the hard part: turning good will into concrete results that can heal the wounds of a very troubled world. If Obama can do that, he'll deserve another Nobel."

Given its recent history, the peace prize probably has little partisan political benefit or baggage.

The award is "basically seen as a liberal award," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Indeed, the Norwegian Parliament elects the prize committee, which, like that body, leans left. Left-of-center parties elected three of the panel's five members. The committee may have used the prize in past years to send messages of disapproval of U.S. policy under Republican President Bush.

When the committee gave the prize to Carter, former committee Chairman Gunnar Berge said flatly that "it should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. …It's a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States."

Five years later, the committee gave the prize to Al Gore, Bush's opponent in the 2000 presidential election, for his work on global warming.

The prize could feed the perception, spread by Obama critics from Hillary Clinton in last year's Democratic primaries to Republicans today, that Obama's political aura is built on a cult of personality rather than a record of achievement.

"Among Obama opponents, the prize will be seen as more evidence that Obama is mainly a celebrity and judged more on image than actual achievements," Sabato said. "Republicans will correctly see this award as yet one more kick to the ribs of George W. Bush. But does it make any long-term difference? I doubt it."

The president, who'll travel to Oslo, Norway, in December to accept the award and will donate the $1.4 million prize to charity, said he was surprised when Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told him of the award in a 6 a.m. phone call.

"This is not how I expected to wake up this morning," Obama said. "After I received the news, Malia walked in and said, 'Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday!' And then Sasha added, 'Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up.' So it's good to have kids to keep things in perspective."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB

Read the Nobel Peace Prize press release at theNobel Prizes Official Web site.

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