BY CHRIS SZABLA
The announcement elicited audible gasps from the audience in Oslo, and visible gapes on faces worldwide. The White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, whose job is to react to such developments, was rendered practically speechless (the word “wow” was all he managed to emit, to one reporter). For many, the initial shock was followed by an immediate and obvious question: why? Scarcely a year into his presidency, Barack Obama ’91 had won one of the most coveted awards on earth: the Nobel Peace Prize, and the fact that the prize committee seemed to place more weight on the direction of his policies than his actual achievements thus far left many scratching their heads.
The committee justified itself by citing the award’s mission, and precedent: it is to be given to an individual whose efforts bring the world in the direction of peace. In 1971, it recognized such efforts in the policy of Eastern Bloc engagement, or Ostpolitik, pursued by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given the prize for his policy of greater social and political openness, perestroika, in much the same spirit.
Yet former President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to bring about the Camp David accords went unrecognized until 2002, after the peace he helped negotiate between Egypt and Israel was recognized as a durable one.Dissenters have pointed to former President Bill Clinton’s tireless efforts to bring about a Mideast peace, in contrast to Obama’s mere rhetoric, and Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s courageous stand against the monopoly on power held by that country’s longtime president, Robert Mugabe. The “snub” against Tsvangirai was one of the most commented-on items on Twitter on Friday, hours after the announcement that Obama had won the prize.
Comment has also focused on the effect the award might have on Obama’s political priorities. Critics believe it is likely to intensify criticism that the President has achieved little in the way of actual foreign policy success, despite his lofty initiatives. His persuading of the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution on the reduction of nuclear weapons has was a rare success in a year when multilateral overtures have failed to result in much coordinated action on the financial crisis or other pressing global issues, such as climate change.
Obama has also been slow to change direction on many policies initiated by his predecessor, George W. Bush, a pledge many have pointed to as the primary motivation for the award. His January pledge to close the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, for example, remains unfulfilled. Obama has also reportedly sparred with his Attorney General, Eric Holder, over prosecution of U.S. officials involved in torture.
But the Nobel might also be an intervention – an attempt to right the course of Obama’s policies by persuading the president to turn away from domestic political preoccupations and focus on achieving results on matters of global concern. While some point to the contrast between the award and Obama’s potential escalation of the increasingly deadly war in Afghanistan, the committee might have, in effect, been forcing the juxtaposition with its announcement – forcing Obama to rethink his strategy there.
Previous recipients of the award have led countries into conflicts, however: critics of the award often cite the time Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho shared the prize for what turned out to be a short-lived peace in Vietnam, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won for signing the Camp David accords with Egypt, before promoting the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories and involving his country in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.
Whatever the award’s implications or consequences, it remains a tremendous achievement for the young president, whose life has been marked by early triumphs and firsts. The first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review and the first black President, he is now the second Harvard Law School alumnus to win the award, and the first to be able to claim it as his own right (David A. Morse ’32 accepted the award on behalf of the International Labor Organization in 1969). He will now be the third sitting U.S. President to win the award, after Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and, with Carter, the fourth President overall to receive it.
Clearly surprised himself, the President brushed off any speculation he would not accept the award some have called “premature” during a Rose Garden press conference. “I am honored and humbled,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action.”