Monday, October 12, 2009

Prize fools

From The Times
October 10, 2009
Prize fools
The Nobel committee’s award to President Obama demeans the peace prize, appears politically partisan and should embarrass the White House

When Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the satirist Tom Lehrer remarked that he saw no further need to perform as the award had made satire obsolete. By offering the world’s most prestigious political accolade to Barack Obama, a man who has held office for barely nine months, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is in danger of putting the entire comedy industry out of business.

The committee has put hope above results, promise above achievement. The prize undermines the selfless triumphs of earlier winners. Indeed, the award’s obvious political intent looks partisan, a signal of European relief at the end of the Bush presidency.

The pretext for the prize was Mr Obama’s action in “strengthening international co-operation between peoples”. That is a worthy aim and America’s re-engagement in multilateral diplomacy has been warmly welcomed by its allies. But it is hard to point to any substantive results yet. Much was promised to the Muslim world in the President’s speech in Cairo; on the ground, the failure still to achieve any tangible progress towards a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians has left all sides disillusioned. In Moscow, the talk of pressing the reset button in relations was welcome, as was Mr Obama’s abandonment of the US missile shield in Europe. But so far none of this has led to the scrapping of any more nuclear warheads.

The nomination of Mr Obama, among more than 200 other contenders, had to be made within weeks of his inauguration. Was this a message of support for the election of America’s first black president? Or was it a self-defeating way of trying to align the peace committee with the excitement that marked his first few weeks in office? Mr Obama yesterday responded with characteristic eloquence and modesty in announcing his acceptance. He would, however, have done better to have let it be known to those sounding out the White House beforehand that he saw the prize as premature, ill judged and embarrassing at a time when he is preoccupied with fighting a war in Afghanistan.

There have, of course, been previous awards that have been widely condemned as undeserved. The most contentious was probably the 1973 prize to Dr Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for their talks on an end to the Vietnam War. Dr Kissinger had just backed the US bombing of Cambodia, and Le Duc Tho — the only nominee to reject the prize — negotiated in bad faith while the Communists prepared plans to invade South Vietnam. Some awards, especially those to Arabs and Israelis, have proved overoptimistic; others, such as the 2005 prize to Mohamed ElBaradei, have been politically partisan.

This year there was no shortage of qualified contenders, men and women who may not have the glamour of Mr Obama but who have easily fulfilled the criteria of individuals who have done their utmost, often at great personal cost, to promote peace, reconciliation and human rights.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister, may seem naive in his faith in sharing power with President Mugabe. But no one can doubt the courage of a man who has been tortured and imprisoned for his actions in defence of democracy. Denis Muwege is a physician in war-torn Congo who has opened a clinic to help the many victims of rape. Senator Piedad C√≥rdoba has mediated in Colombia’s civil war. Greg Mortenson is an American former US army medic who has made it his mission to build schools for Afghan girls in places where warlords and drug dealers kill people for trying. All would have been worthy peace prize winners.

This year, however, no prize has been given for peace. Instead, this is a Nobel prize for politics.

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