Obama's Nobel: Premature, Yes. Lacking Value, No.

Washington Matters

Obama's Nobel: Premature, Yes. Lacking Value, No.

Most recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize are immediately joyous, a bit awestruck and expressively thankful. This won't and shouldn't be the case with President Obama. He'll need to be properly humble and statesmanly in his comments over the next several weeks and in his acceptance in Oslo but not ebullient.

Like many of the challenges in his still young presidency, the international and long-revered peace prize brings with it several downsides and potential traps, even as it showcases the U.S. and its leadership in an often rare positive light. Once again, Obama will have to step with care to avoid domestic and international political landmines.

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Is it worth it for the president to go to Oslo in December before an adoring crowd and accept the prize with so much domestic economic work incomplete? Sure it is. How can you dismiss or downplay the Nobel Peace Prize, even if it may be a bit premature by many accounts (perhaps even his own) and may come with some implied but nonbinding expectations from abroad?

The announcement of the prize does, however, prompt several initial questions about the possible reasons and motivations of the prize committee.


The reported reason behind the award is to honor Obama's approach to foreign policy, his diplomatic outreach to the Muslim world and his pledge to work to reduce global nuclear weapon arsenals. But Obama has no large foreign policy successes to date. Anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world remains widespread, and there's no real expectation of drastic reductions in nuclear weapons. Middle East peace talks are stalled. The global terrorism threat from radical Islam remains alive and well.

Obama is not the typical peace prize recipient because he is currently a commander-in-chief engaged in two wars and likely to ratchet up, in some manner, the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, which will last for years yet. He also has not closed the Gauntanamo Bay military prison. He has not entirely overturned the terrorist-suspect interrogation techniques of the Bush-Cheney era. He's rejected a faster withdrawal from Iraq. It's all grist for criticism of the award choice, and critics will surely harp on the inconsistencies. They already are. 

Was the award given to add pressure on Obama to to live up to the spirit of the prize? To be an international and transcendent peace figure? Will he feel pressured somehow to take a harder line on Israel and its settlements policy with Palestine or with its possible preparation for a military strike in Iran? Was it given as a sweetener to Obama to commit to further outreach to Europe, Russia and Asia?  

And indisputably the award was an intended slap in the face to George W. Bush, which could even be considered an inappropriate interference in U.S. politics.


These will be questions that can only and rightly be pondered. But some things are clear in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

The prize won't create a single job for an unemployed U.S. worker. It won't help Obama pass a landmark health care reform. It won't clear the way for agreement on global climate change. It won't do anything to prop up global economies or the U.S. economy. It could, if not handled carefully, take the president off-focus domestically. That could prove disasterous, and Obama will probably and almost studiously avoid too much talk and discussion about the award in coming weeks. Its political value is questionable at home and possibly very short-lived in the charged arena of domestic and highly partisan politics.

That said, the award has plenty of value and should not be dismissed. After all, it is arguably the world's most revered acknowledgment of efforts to further peace among mankind. It may even give him more stature, making it a little easier for him to win support for his efforts to bring multinational pressure on Iran and North Korea with regards to their nuclear weapons programs.  

If Obama scores some hard-won foreign policy successes abroad in the next few years, his standing in the world will no doubt increase, his international negotiating position will be stronger and the peace prize will serve as a validation, perhaps given in advance, but a validation nonetheless of American global leadership and diplomatic gravitas. If the award helps on this front, it shoud be warmly accepted and bipartisanly applauded.