On the John: Keeping our eyes on the prize

On the John
Keeping our eyes on the prize
Originally completed October 9, 2009

President Obama was humbled by the Nobel Committee's judgment.
President Obama was humbled by the Nobel Committee's judgment.

Three days after the Senate approved a spending bill that would grant another 128 billion dollars in funding to military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President of the United States was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

That juxtaposition is difficult to ignore.

As is the fact that the President in question has been on the job less than a year.

Both of these facts leapt out at me when I heard the news this morning, leading to my first reaction: “Really? REALLY?” And then, after a bit more processing: “Seems a touch soon.”

Certainly there is merit to the notion that Obama has not yet earned the award. That he is being honored more for his spirit than his accomplishments.

And certainly there is no denying the moral implications of the President’s position as Commander in Chief of the world’s largest military, a military that has just been handed 128 billion more dollars for its actions in two wars—not to mention the other 498 billion approved in the bill that will go towards the Defense Department’s budget in 2010.

Because the announcement of Obama’s victory was such a shock, and because the Nobel Peace Prize is the Ron Burgandy of Nobel Prizes, and because of the reasons listed above, the announcement has sparked quite a bit of controversy.

These days though, everything is controversial. Everything is dubbed ‘an outrage’ by one side or the other. The immediate hammer response from EVERYBODY—politicians, standard media, bloggers and tweeters and youtubers, every facebook status update—makes it difficult to slow down and determine…

A.    …how you really feel about just about anything. And…
B.    …how important that thing really is.

So, the first question is: does Obama ‘deserve’ the Nobel Peace Prize?

Of the two listed arguments, the second one is particularly troubling. But it is not as if the Nobel Committee is unaware of America’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. So maybe we should take a step back and re-examine the Nobel Peace Prize itself.

First of all, prestigious as it may be, it is still just an award, like an Oscar or an MVP. It is a group of people coming together once a year to honor a person whom they deem worthy in the advancement of peace. (As well as in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and economics.) Winning a Nobel Prize is not an accomplishment—it is a recognition of accomplishments. Thus winning the award cannot be used as proof that Obama has or has not accomplished certain goals in the name of world peace, only that the Norwegian Nobel Committee thinks he has.

So, is the Committee correct in their assessment? Based on their own reasoning, I would say that they are:

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Committee goes on to define their idea of peace and the ways in which President Obama has fulfilled that idea: that he has “created a new climate in international politics,” that he has emphasized “dialogue and negotiations” as the “preferred…instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts,” and that “thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climactic challenges the world is confronting.”

That last part is difficult for us Americans to evaluate fairly. Like the rest of the world, we have experienced the Obama Image and all he represents. However, we are also forced to slosh through Obama the Politician and the usual political dynamics. We are surrounded by American commentators and American political leaders who discuss Obama in terms of American issues like health care and education.

Here in Chicago, citizens are frustrated that the President seemingly spent more time angling for the Olympics than in working to end violence among Chicago youth.

But around the world, Obama the Image, Obama the Uniter, Obama the Peacemaker…those are the Obamas that matter most.

In America, there is the cynical judgment that Obama’s main qualification for the prize is that he is “not George Bush.” It is hard to recognize sincerity when EVERYBODY has an opinion, and everybody’s opinion is LOUD and IMMEDIATE and CONSTANT.

But outside the States, where the thick, political, election-based fog is absent, perhaps an American President making bold efforts to reconnect with the world is seen as sincere, welcoming, heart-warming. Perhaps they saw the President promise to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” and then they saw that President traveling the globe to make good on that statement. Perhaps they see a President who seems serious about nuclear disarmament, a President who has reached out to the Muslim world, a President who cares about providing health care and education to his own people, a President who does not look or sound or act like his predecessors…perhaps they see all that and believe it. Or appreciate it. Or hope as much as we do that this man is as good as his word.

Really, that is the truth behind the Nobel Prize, and perhaps the key to understanding why a man who commands a military that as of Tuesday is 128 billion dollars richer can be lauded for his commitment to peace.

Long and perilous is the road to a world free of poverty and violence; limited are the victories and tangible markers of success. What is wonderful, then, about the Nobel Committee’s judgment is that they acknowledge this struggle. That they ignore the urge for cynicism. That they believe in the best in mankind and honor the hard work of individuals determined to create a better world. That they recognize the challenges Obama faces due to the basic contradiction of being both a concerned world citizen and the President, and thus, the Commander in Chief.

Scan the list of Nobel Prize winners, and you will see that the award is given more for “continuing efforts” than for “solving” or “eradicating” a problem.

Maybe then, instead of feeling that Obama has yet to “earn” this award because he has only been on the job eight and a half months, maybe we should concede that our perspective as Americans is not ideal in determining the effect that Obama has had around the world. Maybe the Nobel Committee is right: that Obama’s efforts in the early going are worthy of such an honor, that he has already achieved a great deal in the name of world peace, that while, yes, the military he commands has once again gotten paid, that the work he is doing today can not be understood by examining the Defense Department’s budget of 2010 but rather by examining their budget of 2060.

I commend the Nobel Committee for their positive spirit and continued efforts to encourage and recognize those among us who strive for peace. On this day, maybe it wasn’t just Obama who deserved an award, but them.

Copyright 2009, jm silverstein


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