In the Arena

No Peace, No Prize

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There is a slight whiff of condescension attending the announcement that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. There is the sense that he has won simply by not being George W. Bush. Effete Europe is congratulating rowdy America for cleaning up its act and not bringing guns to the dinner table.

Well, I’m as relieved as anybody that the Bushian gunslingers have been given the gate and, as regular readers know, I’m a big fan of patient, rigorous diplomacy–and there’s a certain lovely irony to any prize that brings the Taliban and the neoconservative Commentary crowd together in high dudgeon–but let’s face it: this prize is premature to the point of ridiculousness. It continues a pattern that holds some peril for Obama: he is celebrated for who he is not, and for who he might potentially be, rather than for what he has actually done. If he doesn’t provide results that justify the award, this Nobel will prove a millstone come election time. (See pictures of Obama’s eight months of diplomacy.)

And so, how to handle this “triumph” becomes a strategic puzzle that requires serious thought. Two immediate thoughts occur: he can’t reject it, but accepting it can’t be about him. He can and should immediately say something like, “I don’t deserve this.” That’s a no brainer. The question is, what should he say after that? (See “Why Winning the Peace Prize Could Hurt Obama”)

Perhaps: “But the American people do.” For creating and sustaining a stable and civil democracy that is the envy of the world. And he should celebrate the essential American idea:  that the things we have in common as human beings are more important than the things that divide us. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, whether you believe in God or not–this American principle, the belief in certain inalienable rights, should be the basis for international interactions as well. (See the world reaction to Obama winning the Nobel.)

This should be followed by the necessary caveats–the things that conservatives call “apologies” but are required for credibility–especially the idea that we haven’t always abided by our founding principles in dealing with the rest of the world.

But enough of the high-blown stuff: the Nobel needs to be an excuse for an action agenda. One idea, which Zbigniew Brzezinski has been touting, would be to announce the parameters for a Middle East peace settlement–and recruit the rest of the world to get behind it. This would not please those Israelis–and their American enablers–who want to hold onto lands that they gained by conquest, nor would it please those Palestinians harboring fantasies of regaining lands they left 60 years ago, but most people have a rough sense of what constitutes justice in this tortured patch of earth and Obama might use his Peace Prize to actually create some peace in the world’s most vexing place.

I’m sure there are other things he can and should do–starting with finding an appropriate place to donate the $1.4 million that comes with the award. I’d give it to Greg Mortenson or someone else who has a successful track record of building schools in difficult places.

In the end, this premature prize is a significant challenge for the President: Will Barack Obama use it to demonstrate that he actually has the courage, moral fortitude, intelligence and creativity that the award portends? The expectations bar has always been set impossibly high for Obama. This raises it. (See “Obama Wins a Premature Peace Prize”.)

UPDATE: Well, the President hit precisely the notes I predicted above in his brief remarks in the Rose Garden. I hope he gives some consideration to a more aggressive peace agenda, especially in the Middle East, in the weeks to come.