Why Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize

For eight years peace was made impossible by the lawless Bush-Cheney cabal. Now Obama needs to live up to his award

Published October 10, 2009 12:10PM (EDT)

I was as stunned as anyone when I heard President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday morning. Of course it felt oddly premature. It's enough to send Obama lovers and haters back to the jokes about his being the Messiah; so much seems to come easy to the man. Sometimes Obama makes me think of the old saying: "To whom much is given, much is...given." Yeah, he turns that old proverb on its head.

A few hours of reflection, and reading what the committee said about the award, and I could see its point and purpose. In recent years the Nobel Peace Prize has more often honored promise and encouraged progress than it marked concrete, permanent achievements in the realm of world peace. So the prize went to President Carter's ultimately unsuccessful 1978 Middle East peace drive; and to the same still uncompleted effort by Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in her jail cell, but the point was to support democracy in Burma (and 18 years later, she is still under house arrest).Thinking about the Northern Ireland Catholic and Protestant "Peace Mothers" who won the award in 1976,  years before real peace accords, I suddenly saw Obama's win as strangely humble, and personal: One man trying to reverse the bloody tide of recent American history.

Obama's prize is a measure of how far the Bush administration pushed the United States, and the world, away from peace. So far away that Obama's small but fervent efforts in the opposite direction -- new diplomacy on Israel, Palestine, Iran, Russia and North Korea; slow but steady withdrawal from Iraq and now a painful reappraisal of the increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan; a pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons; new initiatives to the Muslim world -- could win him this prize. But let's take that measure. Let's take in what that said about the way our country had become a source of aggression, belligerence and hostility, and never peace, in the last eight years. And in the midst of all of our partisan squabbling about health care and cap and trade and everything else -- and even as we acknowledge disappointment with Obama on state secrets, torture, Iraq and Afghanistan -- this should be a moment to reflect.

Of course all of Obama's encouraging moves are merely pledges and initiatives and discussions and promises. We are right to press for more. But they are pledges and initiatives and discussions and all kinds of slow but necessary efforts that weren't taking place at all for eight years under the Bush-Cheney regime.  So about mid-day on Friday I abandoned my head-shaking, and instead held my head high. I was impressed by Obama's own humble speech, in which he said flatly he didn't "deserve" the award, by the standards most of us hold for this crucial prize:

"Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

"To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

"But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build -- a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action -- a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

The right-wing's idiocy about Obama's Nobel win is no longer even interesting. So Rush Limbaugh sides with the Taliban now. Good. Both Glenn Beck and Mark Halperin suggested Obama should decline the award; now we know where Halperin stands, that's good too. The country will move on without them. I loved what French President Nicholas Sarkozy (not always an Obama fan) said about why the U.S. president really got the Nobel Peace Prize: "The award marks America's return to the heart of the people of the world." That deserves a prize.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize