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Why Obama Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Why is it so hard to acknowledge that President Barack Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize?


When I went online today, I could feel the cynicism oozing from my computer. “Premature ejaculation in Stockholm,” a Slate editor wrote on Twitter, perhaps not realizing that the prize is given out in Oslo, Norway and not the Swedish capital.

Online, the GOP (along with such peace-loving groups as Hamas and the Taliban) issued a response that was as predictable as it was pathetic: Obama and the Nobel Prize Committee were both to be condemned.


Let’s get something straight: When Alfred Nobel, a Swedish arms manufacturer and inventor of dynamite, bequeathed his considerable estate to establish, among other things, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1895, it was established for "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." According to the rules, the prize is awarded, not for lifelong achievement, but to the one who has done the most to create an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation over the past year.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., you don’t have to wait a lifetime to win. King was the youngest person ever to win the prize in 1964, the year after his “I Have a Dream,” speech. At that time, the peace associated with the civil rights movement was far from being achieved. The committee could have easily argued that King needed more experience. If they had done so, he would likely have won the award posthumously.

Using those standards, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres would not have won in 1994 for attempting to advance peace in the Middle East. Rigoberta Menchú Tum wouldn’t have won for her efforts at justice and reconciliation in post-civil war Guatemala. Aung San Suu Kyi would still be waiting for her prize since democracy and human rights would remain illusive in Burma.

It’s like Archbishop Desmond Tutu said when he congratulated Obama today: “It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope.”


So what hope did the committee glean from Obama over the past year? They rightly saw more movement on the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue than there has been achieved over the past eight years of the Bush administration. They saw U.S.-led efforts to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty—something that Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei noted when he said that Obama "has done in nine months what many people would take a generation to do."

They listened to an administration that has pledged to close down Guantanamo and leave Iraq. They noticed that for the first time since Jimmy Carter, American political discourse has focused on accountability of governments and human rights—Hillary Clinton’s recent condemnation of the murder and rape of opposition demonstrators in Guinea being but an example. For the first time in more than eight years, we have an administration that is willing to listen to the Middle East and willing to tackle the challenges associated with that elusive peace process.


These struggles are complicated and frustrating and nowhere near from being over. Any number of Obama efforts could go badly at anytime. But in issuing the prize to Obama, the committee decided to take the chance to do something relevant. It decided to give the prize as a call to action—in short, as a gesture of hope.

Should Obama be humbled? He’d better be! He’s no Martin Luther King Jr., and he’s no Nelson Mandela. Anybody with any common sense would argue that much more needs to be done. Darfur, Burma, Sri Lanka and Yemen are on the back burner when they shouldn’t be. The health care debate in America keeps us exasperated. And we all feel that the critical issue of American joblessness deserves more attention. To be sure, hope is both what defines the Obama presidency and what leaves us so cynical about its shortcomings.


But as we count up the reasons for pessimism, let’s also take the time to celebrate what has been achieved. Regardless of the troubles ahead, the message of this administration is being heard. The committee understood that America under Obama is again a part of the community of nations—willing to listen and willing to lead.

Gregory Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You contact him here.

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