Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Cupcakes for Life | Main | Drug policy FAIL: LSD for cluster headaches »

October 11, 2009

It's not easy not being Bush

Not bush nobel cat

It's already a truism that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for being not-George W. Bush. This talking point gets repeated as if it's a witty put down. It's supposed to trivialize the win. The implication is that Obama won just for showing up. On closer examination, winning for not being Bush is a pretty substantial distinction in its own right.

Most commentators implicitly assume Obama won just for what he's done as president or what he promises to do in office. In fact, Obama earned the prize for waging a successful campaign to unseat a ruling party that rejected the rule of law at home and abroad.

Much has been made of the fact that nominations for the prize closed in February, just after Obama was sworn in. Obama did take some bold steps towards peace in his first days in office. One of his first acts was to order the closure of prison at Guantanamo Bay. That was an courageous act of profound national and international significance. He also quickly repudiated the Bush administration's torture policies and shut down its secret prisons. But there's more to the committee's decision than that.

If the 2008 election happened in Africa or the Middle East it would seem obvious that an opposition leader who restored the rule of law and set about reintegrating his country into the family of nations would be racking up points towards a Nobel Peace Prize before he even took the oath of office.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama was this year's most deserving candidate, and if not, why not. For all the points in Obama's favor, he's still escalating the war in Afghanistan and signing off on drone strikes that kill 50 civilians for every combatant. He's allowing the State Department to slow walk its response to the coup in Honduras. He's backing Mexico's brutal and pointless war on drugs. GTMO's still not closed. He appears to be in no hurry to prosecute the CIA torturers or even to fully investigate their crimes.

To many American liberals it seems absurd that this record would merit a peace prize, but our perspective is different from that of the Nobel committee. We're evaluating Obama relative to our vision of a perfectly peaceful president. So, of course he comes up wanting.

The Nobel Peace Prize is all about celebrating nascent efforts and rewarding relative improvements. (They gave the Prize to the ICBL and there are still landmines all over the place!) We don't have to discount one perspective to appreciate the other.

The Nobel Committee's penchant for rewarding relative improvements makes sense as applied to other countries. A number of Westerners have nominated the Iranian democracy movement for a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, had the Green Revolution prevailed, it would have brought to power Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the diehard proponent of a nuclear Iran formerly known as the Butcher of Beirut. Still, all things considered, if the demonstrators had successfully challenged Ahmedinejad's attempted election fraud to install a duly elected Mousavi, that would have been a huge step forward, an achievement worthy of a Peace Prize. 

In choosing Obama, the Nobel Committee focused on the really big picture. For all his shortcomings, Obama has fundamentally changed the U.S.'s orientation towards the rest of the world. After eight years of contempt and lawlessness from the Bush Administration, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that America could regain regain its standing in the international community. Regaining trust is a two-way street. Any president can say he wants to improve relations with other countries, but it's not a given that those countries will respond in kind. When they do, that's an achievement for the president.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to restore the U.S.'s place in the world community and the Nobel Peace Prize is proof that he's fulfilling that promise. It's a testament to his leadership that he makes it look easy.

Comments

If Obama had ended military tribunals, he'd be more deserving of the prize.

When the US tells the rest of the world, our intelligence service may grab your citizens from their homes and our military will put them on trial, that isn't a message of peace.

How would we feel if Chinese intelligence officers grabbed an American from his home and gave him a trial conducted by the Chinese military?

Thank you!!

Perhaps, then, the Nobel Peace Prize should go to the American people rather than Obama, since we initiated the change.

Lindsay, Obama closed down Guantanamo symbolically, but did not release its prisoners or give them fair civilian trials.

Your Mousavi analogy is wrong. If Mousavi had won, and governed as he had in the 1980s, he'd have not deserved a Nobel. If he'd won and instead fought to shut down the Revolutionary Guards and increase the power of elected officials at the expense of this of the Ayatollahs, he'd have deserved the prize. And that's against a regime that beats up protesters, throws them in jail, and sometimes kills them. Bush was not Ahmadinejad, the GOP is not the Revolutionary Guards, and Guantanamo by the Hudson was not the Iranian execution chambers.

I think the Nobel Prize is an honor for the President, he was very gracious about accepting it.

No, Alon, your analogy is incorrect. If the Iranian democracy movement had peacefully overcome election fraud to install a Mousavi in accordance with majority vote, that would have been an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize regardless of Mousavi's other flaws. If that had happened, hypothetical ultra-liberals in Iran might criticize the Nobel Committee for bestowing a peace prize on a movement to install a leader who's dead-set on enriching uranium and maintaining some kind of theocracy. They wouldn't be wrong, they'd just be approaching the question from a different perspective than the committee.

Until Obama stops imprisoning hundreds of thousands of non-violent people for smoking the “wrong” plants, both he and his Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske are essentially nothing else than shills for the Taliban and alQaida.

to counter wingnut talking point:

... conclusion:

The latest series of US based person peace prized is really the world saying big FU to Bush. (eg. it's not so much the peace prize, but a giant "evil person" award that doesn't exist and can only be represented by negative space created in the last pieces prizes)


Tho' personally, Obama peace prize is about preventing Obama going to war with Iran. If you remember a) US just transfered THAAD to Israel (Big sign of war preparation) b) all indication says the negotiation with Iran will end in war. c) Israel is itching to go to war.

So by giving Obama peace prize, direct path to Iran war just becoming much more complicated. On the other hand peaceful negotiation becomes more credible.

This award burdens Obama and cheapens the prize going forward. It's been said in print, but I felt these things within an hour of hearing the news.

Fundamentally, it won't change anything. It's a stupid stunt by a some Scandinavian dullards who've just tarnished a precious inheritance.

If the Iranian democracy movement had peacefully overcome election fraud to install a Mousavi in accordance with majority vote, that would have been an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize regardless of Mousavi's other flaws.

If Mousavi had turned out to be a second Khatami, reforming things within the system but not fundamentally changing anything, he probably wouldn't have gotten a Nobel or deserved one. And that's a departure from Ahmadinejad, who's a verifiable nutjob. Bush was no Ahmadinejad - he bombed a country, but so do most US Presidents; if Obama deserves a Nobel for not being Bush, then Brown deserves a Nobel for not being Blair, Major deserved a Nobel for not being Thatcher, Sarkozy deserves a Nobel for not being Chirac (who exploded atomic bombs over the South Pacific and helped support the coup in Haiti that deposed Aristide), and Harper deserves a Nobel for not being Chretien (who helped support the same Haitian coup). And pretty much every Israeli and Palestinian leader deserves a Nobel for not being his predecessor.

Phantom:

This award... cheapens the prize going forward.

Yes, Obama doesn't deserve the prize. But he deserves it a lot more than Teddy Roosevelt did, to say nothing than Kissinger, Arafat, Rabin, and Peres. The prize was cheapened decades before Barack Obama Sr. was born, and many more decades before President Obama was born.

Alon, now you're equivocating about getting a Nobel prize vs. deserving one. I'm arguing that if the democracy movement had successfully overcome election fraud through non-violent protest, that would have deserved a Nobel all by itself--regardless of what the candidate they elected actually stood for. Maybe you don't agree, but it's hardly a controversial POV. The Washington Post op/ed writers want to give the Iranian democracy movement a Nobel right now and they didn't even win.

Obama arguably deserves a Nobel for rejecting Bush's doctrine of preemptive war and his adamant unilateralism. That, and his commitment to nuclear disarmament. From the perspective of the Nobel Committee those are all huge steps towards peace. As the world's only superpower, comparatively small changes in the U.S. stance towards the rest of the world have huge ramifications for peace.

Rejecting torture and secret prisons is symbolically huge. Symbolism counts in diplomacy and by extension in Peace Prizes.

The Iranian democracy movement probably did win - it was just defrauded. That and the violence its members in general and leaders in particular have faced would make it at least a candidate for deserving a Nobel. When people get beaten up every day in New York (or Dallas) for supporting Obama, there will be a case for a Peace Prize. Hell, Kerry had a better case than Obama - in 2004 the US was still torturing people, and Kerry's supporters did get roughed up in New York.

Obama is different from Mousavi. First, he wasn't really leading a movement. He got anti-war support, but he didn't symbolize the anti-war movement in the same way Mousavi did the democracy movement. Second, the prize didn't go to any movement, but to Obama himself, implying that Obama's policies are actually in line with those of the movement even though they're not (cf. Iran, where a few years ago the Nobel went to Shirin Ebadi, rather than to Khatami or Rafsanjani). And third, Obama's supposed commitment to nuclear disarmament hasn't even produced a single summit - so far the closest Obama's gotten to being anti-nuclear weapons is that he's against Iran having them.

Alon, I said win against election fraud--my implication being that Mousavi probably won at the polls only to be thwarted by Ahmedinejad's people. The part that really caught the WaPo op/ed writers' attention was what happened after Mousavi "lost": The massive peaceful protests for a recount/revote/democracy in general. The people who want to give the peace prize to Neda seem to forget, or not to care that Mousavi is a proponent of Iranian uranium enrichment, a religious hardliner by Western standards, etc. (I.e., not conducive to peace in many ways.) I raised this example to show that Americans are comfortable with the idea of giving the Nobel Peace Prize to dramatically flawed actors who still make big relative improvements. It's an odd double standard. When an American president is up for a Peace Prize, Americans say that he has to be perfect in order to be worthy.

No, when an American President gets the prize, Americans say that he has to have done something other than not being as bad as his predecessor.

Also, Mousavi is a proponent of nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons. There aren't a lot of people in Iran who openly advocate nuclear weapon development - Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor is about the only one, but he's so extreme that Khamenei bans him from running in elections. Mousavi is not a proponent of terrorism, or nuclear strikes, or religious oppression (yes, he's religious. So is Obama. That's not what people are complaining about.) - on the contrary, his supporters keep raising the argument that Ahmadinejad is obsessed with Israel as a way of deflecting attention from his domestic troubles.

he deserves it a lot more than Teddy Roosevelt did, to say nothing than Kissinger, Arafat, Rabin, and Peres.

Teddy Roosevelt I understand was instrumental in negotiating an end to the Russo Japanese War.

Henry Kissinger was essential to the rapprochment between the US and China.

Obama has done nothing that remotely approaches either of those accomplishments.

He may accomplish important things some day - he has great ambition, a good thing - but he is now likely to trip over this inexplicable prize when he tries to do anything that needs doing.

If a US citizen was planning to attack China he should be taken,given a quick trial and then given the same as the Chinese would give their own.

I'll add another thing that's important. Obama is the first President who I remember calling for a world without nuclear weapons. Others have made a few appropriate noises about how terrible these weapons are, but Obama has gone on the record as saying that *no one* - not even the United States - should have them.

He hasn't emphasized "not even the United States" of course. He's not, after all, politically tone deaf. But he has said "a world without nuclear weapons" which implies that he hopes we get rid of ours, in the fullness of time.

Reagan wanted a buildup and wouldn't even contemplate a nuclear freeze (NB: I'm not saying that the nuclear freeze movement was necessarily good or wise - merely that it wasn't even worth considering under Reagan). George I, Clinton, and George II all could have called for elimination of nuclear weapons (which, please note, is our putative goal under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty), but none of them actually said it, as far as I can recall.

expat yank -

An American planning to attack China should be grabbed from his home in the US by Chinese intelligence officers?

That isn't consistent with US sovereignty.

The Phantom -

The US started diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China because the PRC tested nuclear bombs.

The decision wasn't anything exceptional on the part of Nixon or Kissinger. Most presidents would have done the same thing if the PRC started testing nuclear bombs on their watch.

Expat Yank, your analogy is incorrect, because you're assuming the detainees are guilty. A correct analogy for the situation of many detainees is that an American traveled to a third country, was grabbed by Chinese officers and tried by a military tribunal for espionage, even though there was little evidence he was doing anything to spy on anyone, much less the PRC.

Phantom, I know that Roosevelt and Kissinger got a Nobel for helping broker peace agreements. It's just that their general behavior was anything but peaceful; Roosevelt was a forerunner of and inspiration for neoconservatism, and Kissinger had North Vietnam carpet-bombed.

The peace prize is not to Kissinger alone. It was a "pair", with Le Duc Tho. So, without the other there is no prize. It was not one man accomplishment.

just gotta say it in better way. Kissinger prize was not for his lifetime accomplishment. It was for very narrow event. Peace agreement with north vietnam. Vietnam war was the biggest postwar conflict the world has ever seen.

The decision wasn't anything exceptional on the part of Nixon or Kissinger. Most presidents would have done the same thing if the PRC started testing nuclear bombs on their watch.

China tested atomic bombs in 1964, and Nixon traveled to China six years later.

Yes the fact that China was potentially a great military and economic power was very much on the mind of Nixon - but I am not sure there is a direct connection.

On this matter, Nixon saw the big picture before most others did. It was a most exceptional decision at the time.

I thought the opening relationship with china is more about "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". It was about exploiting the rift between Soviet and China to break communism.

China at the time was hardly a bleep in term of economy and military power. in the 60's it was a backward third world country instead of second biggest world economy.

The comments to this entry are closed.