Monday, October 12, 2009

At war over Obama's peace prize - ST Oct 11 2009

The gold medallion given to recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize does not come with a ribbon, but the award could still end up being a weight around US President Barack Obama's neck.

In much of the avalanche of reactions during the weekend, a key message came through: The award was given too soon, and it now places a greater burden on the 48-year-old President to live up to the high expectations.

Over the weekend, the announcement of Mr Obama's win drew starkly contrasting reactions within the United States and the rest of the world.

It was met with joy in Kenya, which has a special regard for Mr Obama, as he is the son of a Kenyan economist.

Scathing criticism lay at the other extreme. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters that it was absurd to give a peace award to a man who had sent 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

Mr Obama 'should have won the 'Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians',' he said.

Such reactions were likely expected by the five-member Norwegian Nobel committee, which spent seven months winnowing the dossiers on dissident monks, human rights advocates, field surgeons and other nominees - 205 names in all, most of them obscure - before deciding on Mr Obama.

While in recent decades the selection process has produced many winners better known for their suffering or their environmental zeal than for peacemaking, the panel's new chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said the members this year took a more practical approach in their unanimous vote for Mr Obama.

'It's important for the committee to recognise people who are struggling and idealistic,' Mr Jagland said in an interview after the prize was announced, 'but we cannot do that every year. We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik.

'It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world.'

The committee is overtly political, as the Swedish dynamite tycoon Alfred Nobel must have intended when, in his will, he instructed the Norwegian Parliament to appoint the selection committee.

Mr Geir Lundestad, who as executive director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute has handled the committee's administrative affairs since 1990, said the panel met six or seven times this year, starting several weeks after the nomination deadline, Feb 1.

Any member of a national legislature, any professor of the social sciences and several other categories of people are free to submit nominations, and someone usually puts forward the name of the American president.

This year the panel did not settle on a winner until Monday, Mr Lundestad said.

The committee took a chance in choosing Mr Obama, who not only is in his freshman year as president, but also is directing two wars. Should his presidency descend into a military quagmire, as former president Lyndon B. Johnson's did during the Vietnam War, the decision could prove an embarrassment.

Some in Oslo said the Nobel committee had put the integrity of the award at stake. But Mr Jagland seemed to savour the risk. He said no one could deny that 'the international climate' had suddenly improved, and that Mr Obama was the main reason.

Of the President's future, he said: 'There is great potential. But it depends on how the other political leaders respond. If they respond negatively, one might have to say he failed. But at least we want to embrace the message that he stands for.'

AP, Reuters, AFP

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