Monday, October 12, 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

A president can set the nation’s tone, change attitudes, and move policy by making a speech or a statement. Presidential statements are picked up by the media and spread to the masses for consumption in such a way that the President essentially commands what the public pays attention to. In Obama's case this has been healthcare for all citizens, global warming, nuclear proliferation, race relations, and the United States relations with the Muslim world.

The Nobel Peace Prize was given to Obama this past Friday as a signal from the world that the United States is back in their good graces (well, most of the world) – and President Obama deserves full credit for that. Judging from the statement put out by the Nobel committee, the award is more for the promise of what Obama hopes to accomplish on global warming, nuclear weapons reduction, Middle East peace, focusing on international diplomacy and cooperation, and for "capturing the world's attention and giving its people hope for a better future" than for what he has accomplished to date. Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former prime minister of Norway, explained that Obama's early international diplomacy efforts is what helped him beat out other nominees. In other words, Obama’s agenda is the reason he has received this award.

“Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting,” the secretive five-member committee said. Obama's Nobel Prize win, as much as Conservatives want it to be, is no accident. It came from the Presidents risk-taking work in making daring speeches and visits to dangerous places to bring disparate people together.

Of course there was criticism from some people because Obama has not yet achieved his goals. The far-right wingnuts said the world rebuked Obama after he went to Copenhagen and suffered a “defeat” by unsuccessfully lobbying for Chicago to get the 2016 Olympic Games. In doing so, I think wingnuts actually influenced the Nobel committee’s decision. In giving this award to Obama, the Nobel committee is telling the rightwing forces to back off. This Nobel Peace Prize is a deliberate answer to the attitude of the wingnuts and their refusal to play nice. The Nobel committee is giving a hand up to Obama against his domestic adversaries and sending a message of encouragement to those Americans who put Obama in office.

The Nobel committee wants to encourage President Obama to continue pursuing his promise of change in world relations. Anyone who thinks that giving the Peace Prize as encouragement before anything has been accomplished is wrong. This is not unprecedented. The Nobel Committee gave South African Bishop Desmond Tutu the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership of efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid wasn't fully abolished in South Africa until 1994. The committee could have waited until after apartheid was abolished to say, "Well done!" But the point of the award was to help bring down apartheid by strengthening Bishop Tutu's efforts.

During the daily news update with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday, a reporter was questioning (in a ranting way) as to why Ronald Reagan didn't gain such an award. The answer is easy: Reagan's constant saber-rattling against the Soviet Union had many of us considering moving to Canada just to be out of the way of the possible results of his reckless abandon. Under President Reagan one had the uneasy feeling he was willing to push the red button and get us all blown to hell at any time. In the end, Reagan essentially broke the economic back of Russia, but he did so by causing America to pay the heavy price of being considered the World's new bully.

The contrast in America’s relations with the world while President Bush was in office is pretty stark on nuclear weapons reduction, Middle East peace, and global warming. The Bush administration dropped efforts to get the Senate to ratify the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol, a pact adopted by all other industrialized nations for curbing greenhouse gas emissions until 2012. It's a change that clearly appeals to the Nobel committee, although the committee is well aware that history is contingent and that Obama might fail. It knows very well that the same country that elected Obama also gave the world George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan – and that the far right faction can once again take over.

The Nobel award is a massive repudiation of several decades of Republican "Cowboy" diplomacy. It is a rebuke to the George W. Bush administration and his unilateralism – his “you are either with us or against us” attitude. Masculine virility and macho militarism was fused with the national symbols of the flag and the military. Europeans have seen this before. When we were engaged in our self-congratulating rally, the rest of the world was absolutely horrified. Bush-Chaney lead American foreign policy toward militarism and unilateralism, and he did so with Christian fundamentalist flair. President Obama, in less than ten months, has reset American foreign policy more toward multilateralism and a mature engagement with the world. He has a long way to go and things might not work out. But at least he is moving in the right direction.

President Obama, the third sitting U.S. president to receive the award, has been anointed an important leader on a world scale and is now someone who must be heard not just because he's President of The United States. The award says his actions signal a positive change for the world. The Nobel committee has set the table for Obama's emergence on the world stage as a difference-maker. For the GOP to oppose him now is to go against one of the most important leaders in the history of the free world.

But the GOP is not listening. The hatred and vitriolic response from the right shows they have lost ability to accept something good when it comes our way internationally. The GOP has become so brainwashed by the belligerent Bush-Cheney-Bolton unilateralism of the previous eight years, with its hatred for the world and its people, they are incapable of recognizing the simple truth that it is much better for America to have a president who is admired and respected in the world than one who is despised and feared. Everything Obama has achieved has been met with withering sarcasm and ridicule. He sends Bill Clinton to free American prisoners in North Korea and it turns out to be a stunning success that offers a breakthrough in relations with that weird and dangerous nation and the media greet the news with a collective yawn. His efforts to win the 2016 Olympics are fruitless but provide hours of joy for rightwing loudmouths who ridicule and demean his effort. He wins the Nobel Peace Prize and these same gasbags trash the Nobel Prize and the President.

What is being missed due to the deafening cacophony coming from the rightwing is that Americans should use this Nobel Prize as yet another Obama-inspired "teaching moment" to come to terms with just how much George W. Bush's foreign policy scared the h*ll out of the rest of the world (and many Americans, too). Instead, the GOP aims vitriol at the President for winning it. They do not care about the world’s perception that most Americans came to their senses when Obama was elected. They do not care that for the first time in years the world is looking toward the United States for global leadership. They preferred the childish bullying, the "you are either with us or against us" attitude, the rooster-like crowing about how great we are and if you don’t like it we’ll pound you into the ground like we do the opposing team at a football game – it made them feel good.

This is a symbolic prize – an international recognition that Obama is at least on the right track. There are times when what's good for America should trump partisan politics. President Obama was honored Friday because the world is hearing "America" and "peace" in the same sentence for the first time in years. That's good.

Congratulations, Mr. President. The world supports you in your endeavors – and so do a majority of Americans. Now comes the hard part: turning goodwill into concrete results that can heal the wounds of a very troubled world – and a very troubled nation. If you can do that you will deserve another Nobel Peace Prize.