I scanned my RSS reader quickly this morning. Short on sleep, with at least an hour of work to do to prepare for my morning class, it was meant to be nothing more than a cursory glance. The story – covered on some blog or other – stood there at the top of the list. Nobel Peace Prize? Obama? It didn’t look like a joke posting, but it just looked too unbelievable to be true. So I scrolled down, saw the story on one, then another. Then I saw it on Talking Points Memo. Only then did I accept it as true. Josh Marshall doesn’t joke around, nor does he print stories based on rumours. Wow.
My first reaction, once I accepted it as true, was simply ‘wow’. On one hand, it’s nice to see a positive take from someone with perspective that isn’t tied up in the internecine struggles of American politics. Even as you reject the “birthers” and the “deathers”, their brand of outrageous nonsense still colours the discourse. And, like many liberals, I’m less than thrilled with the way the White House is handling the health care debate, the why the DOJ has handled some civil liberties cases. So positive news is a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, it seemed premature. He’s seriously considering escalating in Afghanistan, while the Palestine seems on smoulder, on the edge of a new flare-up. But the language of the Nobel Committee’s language spoke of change in the “international climate”. And as the climate of international relations changes, it creates space for peacemaking.
Later on, I started to think about what people had said, had to say. And it occurred to me that maybe Obama wasn’t such a bad choice. Several people said that Obama received the prize “for not being Bush”. Phrased that way, it seems trite, but that’s actually a pretty good argument for awarding him the Prize.
It’s easy to forget how much things have changed in the last year or so. It wasn’t that long ago that people were discussing, with straight faces, the question of whether the US should use nuclear weapons against Iran. Cheney and the neocons were ready to go to war with Iran. There was also talk about war with North Korea. Right or wrong, it seemed like the only thing holding them back from getting involved in another war was the fact that the military was strained to the breaking point. In addition to that, the US wasn’t only using torture, people in the government were defending tactics like waterboarding. So it’s more than “not being Bush” – it’s a conscious decision to abandon much of the former regime’s rhetoric and a good bit of their actions. The Obama administration has still fallen short on civil liberties, it still hasn’t ended the wars, it still hasn’t closed Guantanamo…but that doesn’t change the fact that what they have done is huge.
But all of this is still simply a matter of “not being Bush”, right? Not really. Obama didn’t defeat Bush in the election last year. He defeated John McCain. And John McCain rhetoric was far more belligerent than Bush’s. Not only was he singing “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran”, he also seemed ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia last summer. And, of course, a McCain victory would have put Sarah Palin “a heartbeat away from the Presidency”.
Still, it’s easy to say “well OK, but any Democrat would have done this”. But would they have? During the Democratic primary Obama was ridiculed by his fellow Dems for his willingness to engage in diplomacy, even with Iran. More importantly, he showed himself to have a spine when dealing with the right-wing claims that he (or any Dem) was “soft on terrorism” (or international affairs, or…) Look what happened in the authorisation of the Iraq war. Dems were cowed into voting for the war. That’s important, because (as we have seen) the criticism from the far right is unrelenting. And Congressional Dems have shown that they will cave if the far right gets loud enough. This was important in the decision to stop the plan for (unproven) anti-missile systems in eastern Europe. While touted as being defenses against Iran, they were most likely to provoke escalation with Russia. Again, it takes enough spine to stand up to the far right and do what makes most sense. Obama also has a proven track record on nuclear disarmament, of course.
Equally important is Obama’s attempts to improve relationships with the Muslim world. Again, given all the claims that he was a “secret Muslim”, I can see strategists telling Obama “stay away from the Muslim world”, since it will inflame the far right. It took courage to reach out. And reaching out matters. Not only does it create the opportunity to improve relations (and thus improve the global climate), it also may help average Americans begin to get over their Islamophobia. You talk to Americans, even liberals, and they see Islam as monolithic, and scary. Muslims were never popular in the US, but over the last few years they were dehumanised to the extent that deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as insignificant or even (horror of horrors) a good thing, in some cases.
Obama’s personal popularity and likability also contribute to the way he – and by extension, the US – is perceived in the world. Again, this is more than being “not Bush”. This is being Obama. National leaders need to work together, regardless of what they think of one-another and regardless of what their people think of the other leaders. It’s far more popular to negotiate with, to cooperate with a Barack Obama than with a George Bush. Similarly, if you’re a demagogue trying to work people up against America, it’s easier when the American leader is hated, and much more difficult when the American leader is loved.
It’s more than just “showing up”. Obama has changed the international political climate, and he’s done so in a way that makes peace more possible. That doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s also in charge of two wars and is considering escalating in Afghanistan. That doesn’t change the fact that he must do more for world peace. It’s one thing to ask whether Obama is the most deserving candidate. (I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.) It’s quite another to suggest that he isn’t qualified for the award. It’s only been a few months, but he has made a real and significant impact on peace.