Friday, October 09, 2009

The Peace Prize

[I]n his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses."
John Dickerson, writing in Slate
So, unless you've been hiding under a rock today, you've probably heard that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. So far as I can tell, Mr. Obama and the White House staff were as surprised as anybody, and have handled the news in a perfectly reasonable and dignified fashion. This is not a surprise. Barack Obama is a classy guy, and I'd expect no less from him or the people who work for him. Also not surprisingly, the wingnut fringe has exploded in outrage, without even bothering with a moment of graciousness and congratulation to Mr. Obama and these United States. Glenn Beck even went so far as to say that the Prize should be awarded to the Teabaggers and the 9/12 protesters, which is a hoot, but not a surprise, since that guy has absolutely no shame at all and will say or do anything to get attention, much as a recalcitrant two-year-old will say or do anything to get attention, because to a two-year-old, attention is like publicity: there's no such thing as bad.

And before I go any further, let me just say that this a great honor, both for President Obama and for these United States, and that, as an American citizen and a patriot, I cannot help but be proud that such an honor has been bestowed on a serving American President for the first time since Woodrow Wilson received it for helping to set up the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN.

That said, I have real reservations about the award. And before anybody's panties get all bunched up, let me say that my reservations have way way way more to do with the Nobel committee and its decision than they do with Barack Obama, with whom I have my issues but in whom I am still willing to put a little faith.

First and foremost, I think the award is as much a repudiation of the policies and administration of George W. Bush as it is a positive affirmation of Mr. Obama. It may be that I'm too entrenched in following domestic politics to see just how wonderful the rest of the world thinks we are for electing Obama President, but even the Cairo speech hasn't really moved the favorable view of the US numbers in the Middle East, and while I think it was a good and even historically significant step in the right direction (along with the outreach to Iran, the attempt to reset things with the Russians, the scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile installations in Eastern Europe, and the promise to draw down our troop deployment in Iraq), it's just a step, and bromides about the first step being the hardest or getting you halfway aside, there's a long slog ahead if we're going to make any real progress on any of those fronts.

And while I do understand that the Nobel Committee sometimes awards Peace Prizes as a way to encourage future actions (hat tip to Kim S.), I'm not sure they're really helping themselves or their agenda by taking this action, and, more importantly, I think, honestly, that they cheapen the prize by lowering the bar like that. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, but to me the Nobel Peace Prize should be an acknowledgement of actual accomplishments in the realm of world peace, not just steps in the right direction. And while I understand the way forward the Nobel Committee hopes to encourage, and even agree with it, I think that today's announcement is actually going to make it more difficult to continue taking steps in that direction because of the opposition it's going to engender. Yeah, the wingnuts and the Movementarians are already dead set against anything Obama says, does, or stands for, and maybe, in the end, this won't make a difference. It's hard to see how this puts anybody who was still on the fence over the edge, but it seems like the Nobel Committee could have accomplished nearly as much just by putting Obama on the short list and giving the prize to someone more deserving.

Because, really, I don't think Obama yet deserves the Peace Prize. He may someday, and he certainly deserves encouragement for some of the steps he's taken and some of the unwinding he's done of the previous Administration's encroachments on nearly every aspect of the American experiment that is good and righteous and just and true, but he's only been in office for nine months. That's just not enough time to have accomplished Nobel Peace Prize-grade world-saving.

Furthermore, need I remind everyone that Barack Obama is currently presiding over not one but two wars of aggression? Yeah, we might've had to go into Afghanistan to uproot Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. I was and remain for that. We were attacked, and while we should've seen it coming and stopped it beforehand, it was justified and necessary to go get the motherfuckers what came and got us. But that was 2002. Now it's 2009, and nobody can say what we're doing there, aside from using southern Afghanistan as a base for our rightfully controversial and highly problematic (as well as apparently effective) program of targeted drone-based assassination of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan. If that's the point, then maybe I'm willing to get behind that, but for right now we're just there because we're there, and our boys and girls in uniform are getting shot and blown up because of that, and that's not okay. As for Iraq, I recall there being some noise about drawing down forces and ending combat operations, but as far as I know we still have tens of thousand of troops stationed there, with equally murky mission parameters.

And yes, Obama did inherit those conflicts. He didn't start them. But the drone-based assassination program was his idea, floated in one of the Primary debates, as I recall, and picked up by the Bush Administration, who were floundering and in need of some good ideas since all of theirs were horribly misguided at best.

In the end, it may be that Obama will do the right thing regarding the wars he inherited from the Bush Administration. There's even a case to be made that the collateral damage and civilian deaths that are a direct result of the drone attacks in Af-Pak are justified and necessary. But war's war, and it just seems odd to me that a man in the middle of waging two of them would win a prize for peace. Yes, there are lots of hopeful signs, and it's a testament to how far and how fast we fell during the Bush years, both objectively and in the eyes of the world, that even just doing some basic diplomacy and not telling everyone else in the world to go suck it can seem like the dawn of a new day, and I hope that it is. I really do. But this is not kids' soccer. You shouldn't get a trophy just for showing up and trying your best. Trophies should be symbols and acknowledgments of accomplishment and not just effort. The Nobel Peace Prize should be the same.

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