A co-worker of mine recently visited Canada for a wedding. The day she arrived in her preferred unpopulated stretch of tundra, President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced.
Now, my first reaction upon hearing about the award was that it was too soon, at least. Then again, it wasn’t until 8 hours later that it occurred to me that our President’s race might factor into the analysis.
But in Canada, the consensus was that this was a well-deserved honor. That evicting an anti-world, anti-peace, anti-liberties junta from our seats of power and restoring the United States to a path to peace and justice was an obvious and right move.
Various US bloggers that I read, folks from across the political spectrum, seem to be sticking with my initial reaction, but I’m coming around to the Canadian view. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of US policy and ignore the big picture.
Yes, Ed, President Obama has been slow to move on certain civil rights abuses carried over from his predecessor, and has dropped the ball entirely on some of them. But it’s worth pulling back a bit. When Obama came to office, there was serious talk (which I supported, and kept meaning to write a big blog post pushing forward) of creating a truth and reconciliation commission to delve into the details of the Bush administration’s abuse of power. The government’s scientific agencies are still sorting out what was done to them over the previous 8 years, the courts are still trying to figure out how to handle things like warrantless wiretapping and preventive detentions, and Congress is recalcitrant about letting anything useful happen to the prisoners currently held in Guantanamo Bay. The President has a lot of power over these things, but it isn’t infinite, and reversing 8 years of proto-fascistic horror will take a little while.
This award is clearly not given for successful completion of that transition, but it is a clear sign from the world that they see the authoritarian abuses of the last 8 years, and want to honor the work that President Obama did simply to get elected, and to encourage him and the rest of the government to keep a clear eye on their original goals. In this sense, the award is similar to that given Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. In her case, of course, she was given the award after a democratic election positioned her to take over after several years of military dictatorship, but instead was put under house arrest. The award there was meant to call attention to her plight and to make it hard for the ruling junta to kill her or keep her in jail. While the prize didn’t set her free, it almost surely has kept her alive through 18 years of house arrest, and kept her voice from being silenced utterly.
Obama is not a political prisoner, but he is in a political bind. He made a strong push to close the Guantanamo prison and bring its occupants under the clear rule of law. Congress passed a law forbidding those prisoners from entering the US. Efforts to bring clear accountability to Guantanamo, to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons, to account for ghost prisoners and official torture, and to clarify how the government illegally spied on its citizens, all have met with resistance within the administration and without.
The Prize, in this context, gives Obama a bargaining chip, and lays a certain marker on his future actions. Presuming (quite plausibly) that the President is an honorable man, accepting this honor is an act which will tug on him as he considers what path to pursue over what I hope will be another 7.25 years in office. If he ever thinks of giving up on Guantanamo, he’ll see that Prize and think again. And if he needs extra leverage with Congress, he can remind them that the civilized world stands behind him, and wants to help him succeed in bringing light to the places his predecessor darkened. The Prize will also be on display when the President asks foreign leaders for help repatriating prisoners from Gitmo, opening up documents regarding illegal torture and wiretapping, and crafting a new international regime focused on peace and openness going forward.
The Prize isn’t just a reward for successfully defeating the dark forces of Bush and Cheney, and their designated successors. It’s a claim on our President’s best intentions, a reminder to him that he hasn’t succeeded yet, any more than Bishop Tutu had succeeded when he won. Tutu’s award did help push the Reagan administration into backing a divestment campaign which crippled the apartheid regime, strengthening Tutu’s hand domestically and internationally.
Is this political interference by foreign powers in domestic politics? I suppose, but so was the award to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the award to Al Gore more recently. The Prize functions in many cases as the only chance for the international community to cast a vote on American policy. During the Bush years, it has often been used for exactly that purpose. Carter’s win was well-deserved, but in 2002, during the run-up to war in Iraq, a Peace Prize to a former President for his efforts to “wage peace” was hardly subtle. The award to Al Gore in 2007 was not subtle either, acknowledging Bush’s defeated opponent and rewarding him for following a path very different than that followed by the Bush team.
As critics note, this promissory role for a Nobel Peace Prize is not always successful. Henry Kissinger got the Prize for establishing a ceasefire in Vietnam, and immediately escalated the war. The problem there is that Henry Kissinger has no honor. He didn’t and doesn’t care about what other countries think, so the Prize has no claim on his soul or his honor. Obama does have honor, so it does place a claim on his future actions.
FInally, the prize isn’t just for Obama, because Obama didn’t unseat the Bush junta alone. The prize acknowledges the hard work of the Obama campaign, including folks like me who knocked on doors, and folks like Ed and Glennzilla and many other critics of President Bush, people who kept the flame of democracy burning long enough for Obama carry it back to the White House.
Setting aside the politics, I can’t help but feel a shiver every time I think about the President being given this award. It’s an honor not just for him, but for this nation. It’s a reminder that we’re part of something bigger, and that however focused we can get on the political fights of the day, true progress is possible, and a lot of people are pulling for us.