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The Nobel and the audacity of hope-giving

Siddharth Varadarajan

The world is so accustomed to American presidents waging war that the first incumbent to promise diplomacy gets to win the Nobel peace prize regardless of what he does.

— PHOTO: AP

NEGATIVE SIGNAL: Chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjorn Jagland with a picture of Barack Obama at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo on Friday. All the Norwegian committee seems to have gone by is the down payment of words

Whether it was a nave, Nordic leap of faith in Obamamania or the burning desire to pre-empt the betrayal of hopes that the new U.S. president has aroused, the Nobel committee’s decision to give its coveted peace prize to Barack Obama is likely to leave the world at large — not to speak of the American people — puzzled, bemused and more than a little sore.

The reason for this is not because the world dislikes or distrusts Mr. Obama. Many may or do, but global sentiment towards the new president of the United States still runs largely positive. What is upsetting, however, is the intellectual laziness and political timidity with which the Nobel committee appears to have gone about its exertions.

After eight years of George W. Bush as American president, the victory of Mr. Obama was widely welcomed across the world. And so far, he has done well to talk the right talk on virtually every major issue of war and peace. He has said he will shut down the notorious U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo, end the practice of torture and bring the war in Iraq to an end as soon as possible. On Iran, he has reiterated his campaign promise of dialogue and diplomacy and even followed through by authorising his officials to interact with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva earlier this month. He made a stirring speech in Cairo on the need for justice in the Middle East and another at Prague on a nuclear weapon free world. He is, of course, threatening to ramp up the Afghan war but his generals have said they will use force in a more intelligent way than the U.S. has so far done in that country.

Had Mr. Obama delivered on even a quarter of these promissory notes, the Nobel peace prize would have justly been his. But all the Norwegian committee seems to have gone by is the down payment of words. Nominations for this year’s prize apparently closed on the 12th day of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Those who nominated him clearly couldn’t be bothered to wait and see whether he came good. But the Nobel committee, in reaching its decision, should at least have factored in those elements of actual presidential policy that actually run counter to his stated agenda.

Take peace in the Middle East, for example. The Israeli government spared Mr. Obama the embarrassment of having to endorse its aggression in Gaza by ending the war just before the new president’s inauguration. This was a war in which the Israeli military and political leadership committed war crimes, according to the authoritative investigative report authored by Judge Richard Goldstone for the United Nations. But for Mr. Obama and his team, the report is irrelevant. Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama told the Israelis they would have to stop their illegal policy of expanding the presence of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. But when Tel Aviv rejected the demand, our Nobel peace prize winner quietly went along.

On Iran, it is far from clear that Obama’s Washington has foreclosed the so-called military option. The Geneva meeting went well between Iran and the P5+1 went well, producing an interim confidence building measure that belies the Western hype about the imminence of Tehran’s nuclear threat. But the preparations for war are proceeding side by side. The administration has quietly sought and received funding for the proposed massive ordnance penetrator the so-called bunker buster that the Pentagon says it needs to destroy Iranian nuclear sites which have been buried underground.

As for the vital global issue of climate change where Mr. Obama promised radically to depart from the Bush administrations ostrich-like approach, it is becoming increasingly clear that diplomatic engagement is merely a different means to achieving the same end: evasion of Americas historical responsibility drastically to cut its emission of greenhouse gases.

The problem with the Nobel committee awarding Mr. Obama the peace prize is that it sends out an entirely negative signal: that it is all right for a U.S. president to ignore global concerns on the environment, take the side of a regime like Israel that is accused of serious war crimes or to consider coercive or even military means for the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

Mr. Obama still has time to come around to a more pacific course on these and other issues. The urge to live up to the international recognition he has already received might be an incentive. But with the Nobel peace prize already under his belt and the weight of well-entrenched lobbies, interests and policies bearing down on his worthy shoulders, the chances of him actually doing so have probably just got narrower.

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