President Barack Obama’s decision to ask for congressional approval to strike Syria last week raised a fair amount of throat-clearing from those who pointed to his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
“President Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Back on War Footing,” read the headline of an ABC News blog post by Abby D. Phillips Friday. “Barack Obama ‘does not deserve’ his Nobel peace prize say angry Syrian refugees in Zaatari camp,” read a headline from The Telegraph Monday.
Obama was originally lauded by the Nobel committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples … [who] created a new climate in international politics.”
When Obama was awarded the prize in the first year of his presidency, he admitted to befuddlement. “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated,” he said in his acceptance speech. “In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.”
Four years later, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a case Obama has lived up to this honor. It’s starting to remind me of when Milli Vanilli was awarded, and later returned, the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. Or when Jethro Tull’s “Crest of a Knave” beat Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” for the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrument in 1989. Or when “Forrest Gump” beat “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for the Best Picture Oscar in 1995.
Likewise for the Nobel, there seems to be an endless string of controversial recipients of the Norwegian committee’s prizes. Their official website has an entire page dedicated to these dust-ups.
“The Nobel Peace Prize has frequently caused controversy,” wrote editor Øyvind Tønnesson. And, of course, there’s the irony of the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, using his posthumous estate to found the Nobel Prizes, one of which is for peace. “Prizes [will be awarded] to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind,” Nobel wrote in his final will, signed Nov. 27, 1895. He stipulated the winner of the peace prize “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.”
Given those parameters, the paradox of who has been chosen has been too much to handle at times. Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, Austen Chamberlain, the European Union, Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Theodore Roosevelt and Liu Xiaobo have all raised hackles with their awards.
“I’ve said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize,” musical comedian Tom Lehrer told The A.V. Club on May 24, 2000. Kissinger was jointly awarded the award in 1973 along with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho for the (routinely violated) Paris Peace Accords.
“Le Duc Tho has rejected the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him jointly with Secretary of State Kissinger for the Vietnam agreement they negotiated,” reported Flora Lewis for the New York Times on Oct. 23, 1973. “He said that ‘peace has not yet really been established in South Vietnam. … In these circumstances it is impossible for me to accept’ the prize. ... Two members of the [Norwegian Parliament’s Nobel Prize Committee] have resigned in protest against the award.”
But maybe with Obama we should have seen this coming. In his 2009 Nobel speech, he left himself plenty of outs. “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” he said.
Obama is far from the first questionable decision the Nobel committee has made. Though, in this case especially, they should have never offered the award without the recipient producing results first. But at this point, I’d rather see our president live up to the award than return it.