Controversy is no stranger when it comes to the choice of Nobel Peace laureates, and this year's selection of US President Barack Obama is a case in point. After having served only nine months in office when the award was announced and just a few days when the nominations were closed, Obama himself admitted being "most surprised and deeply humbled" by his selection.
Accepting the award, Obama noted that he did not "deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize." So why was he selected, and why did he accept?
The peace prize committee explained its choice by citing Obama's leadership in creating a "new international climate," particularly his call for nuclear disarmament and climate change. But when has a Nobel Peace Prize been awarded to a statesman for oratory alone? To paraphrase one commentator, Pulitzer Prizes don't go to journalists with a great scoop; Olympic medals are not awarded to the leading athletic contenders; and medals of honor are not pinned on the chests of warriors who boast about courage before the battle is waged.
Surely the Norwegian committee grasped that a premature award might well end up exploding in their faces, as did the previous awards to North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho and the Palestinians' Yasser Arafat. The Obama administration has embarked upon a perilous foreign policy predicated principally upon the president's catechism of engagement. Judging by the results of this approach thus far, this new approach is leading nowhere and may well plunge America and the world into true catastrophe; witness Iran and North Korea.
THE PREMATURE award of the peace prize to a fledgling administration struggling to gain its footing in the international arena poses other risks. How easy will it be for laureate Obama to authorize air strikes against the Iranian nuclear plants (or give Israel the green light to do so), if engagement and then sanctions fail? And what about his longstanding promise to escalate NATO involvement in Afghanistan? To be sure, being a recipient of the prize does not diminish the powers of the presidency, but there is little doubt that the decision to resort to more coercive measures will be that much more difficult for a peace prize laureate.
One former Israeli politician recently rationalized the award to Obama on the grounds that peace prizes, in contradistinction to the other Nobel awards, were not necessarily granted for tangible accomplishment, but to encourage a particular path or philosophy.
Thus, the 2009 prize is intended as incentive for Obama to hold fast to his visions of world peace, no matter how audacious they may be. No peace prize has ever been awarded for this reason. But assuming it is a proper purpose, what does this mean for the world, for the Middle East and for Israel?
In the past decade, facing infamous assaults by Islamic fundamentalists and rogue states upon human freedom and democratic principles, the United States courageously took the lead to combat terror and to weaken its infrastructure throughout the world. This did not please everyone, particularly the Europeans. The Obama administration has blithely declared an end to this war.
In response, the Nobel committee has given its imprimatur to a radical readjustment in US foreign policy. The committee seems to want to return the world to an earlier era when grandiose programs of peace, disarmament, world government and appeasement were the watchwords of the liberal elite.
During those critical years of the 1920s and 1930s, the prize often went to people like Nicholas Murray Butler, Norman Angell, Arthur Henderson and Frank Kellogg, who spoke eloquently about world peace and world institutions, but watched casually as democracy was all but obliterated in Europe and Asia and the stage was set for World War II and the destruction of millions of lives, including six million of our own people.
The lesson of the interwar years is also instructive for the lack of moral clarity shown by the leading democracies of the time, including the United States. The inability to act in the face of forces determined to stamp out liberty led inexorably to horrors of World War II and its aftermath.
Similarly, what does it mean when the 2009 Nobel Peace laureate refuses to meet with the Dalai Lama, the 1989 winner of the award? Or when the president, in accepting his award, does not dare mention the name of a true martyr for peace, Neda Agha-Soltan, a co-nominee for the 2009 peace prize who gave her life fighting for the very ideals America was founded to safeguard? Even the Washington Post suggested that it would have been better for Obama to decline the peace prize in deference to this heroic young woman from Teheran.
FOR THOSE of us in the Middle East and Israel, the decision of the Norwegian committee bodes especially ill. For if the aim of the committee was to encourage Obama to stay his course, it means continuing with a policy that exaggerates the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the stability of the Middle East and links US opposition to Iranian nuclearization to the freezing and dismantling of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. It means embracing the view that the State of Israel owes its legitimacy to the fires of the Holocaust rather than the legacy of 4,000 years of Jewish history. It means turning a blind eye to the canards of the Goldstone Report or Spain's decision to expel the student architects of Ariel University Center from the 2010 Solar Decathlon.
Rather than set a new precedent by awarding the prize to a neophyte statesman with an untested foreign policy, the Nobel committee might well have adhered to its own longstanding precedent (followed so often during the interwar years) and allocated the prize money to its Special Fund pending the nomination of a more worthy recipient. True, Obama cannot be blamed for the decision of the committee, but it was a mistake to accept it. Had he done the right thing, it would have been seen as a truly gracious and noble act.
The writer is a practicing international attorney with offices in Israel and the United States and serves as co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel.