Here at State of Affairs, we pride ourselves on staying relatively ahead of the curve, bringing you entertaining news et cetera before you’re likely to go find it elsewhere. Sometimes, though our staff of one full-time writer (that would be yours truly) needs a bit of a break, and after a month of shows (including but not limited to the marriage of Adam Grant from Two Assholes and his lovely wife last weekend – congratulations!) old Uncle Al was a little tuckered out. Lucky enough, this weekend is Thanksgiving in Canada, so I was afforded an extra day off (on Monday).
Unfortunately, that means I had to wait an extra day to talk about this week’s big “what the fuck” moment.
It seems the committee charged with handing out this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has really gone out on a limb and awarded the prestigious honour to none other than our man Barack Obama, a decision that’s left the world wondering “why”?
According to Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland, the controversial pick was motivated by a desire to “build momentum” behind Obama’s proposed nuclear disarmament initiatives, his moves to build a lasting peace between the West and the Muslim world, his push towards international diplomacy and unilateralism, and the importance he’s placed on the pressing issue of climate change.
Of course, there’s been considerable backlash around the world – the last sitting president to win the Peace Prize was Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for his definitive role in building the now-defunct League of Nations (the precursor to the UN), and since then everyone who’s won the award has a visible, provable track record of working towards world peace. The big problem everybody seems to have is that Obama lacks that kind of shining track record, or any track record whatsoever in fact.
And honestly, I’m going to have to agree with the nay-sayers this time.
Anybody who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a pretty liberal guy: I’m an active supporter of gay rights, women’s rights and the drive towards sustainable energy. I was a major critic of the previous US administration under George Bush and I’ve spoken out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Obama was elected to the presidency, I had high hopes that he might indeed be this great saviour the media was purporting him to be, and to a certain extent the rest of the world agreed with me – the recent Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed that support for the United States has grown drastically since Bush and company departed the White House and Barack sat down in the Big Chair. But ultimately, my original statement still stands: when I watched the inauguration ceremony, surrounded by weeping-with-joy Democrat supporters, my only thought was “please don’t be a liar like the rest of them”. To date, there’s been an awful lot of big talk and a great deal of groundwork done by this administration, but no real action.
Yeah, Obama went to the Middle East to start mending the bridges previously napalmed by imperialist American foreign policy and borderline-Orwellian home defense initiatives. Yeah, he’s talked a lot about revamping the American health care system to bring his nation into the 21st century. And yes, his rhetoric about disarmament and climate-change strategies has been nothing if not stirring.
But what has the guy actually done?
Well, for starters, not a hell of a lot of anything.
The biggest criticism of the Nobel committee’s decision revolves, predictably, around Afghanistan. Far from Obama’s original claims to reduce and eventually eliminate American military presence in that region, he’s actually sent a further 21,000 troops to help “stabilize” the area, and it might not stop there. General Stanley McChrystal, the current commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, is asking the White House for a further 40,000 troops as part of a new counter-insurgency plan. Obama is a self-proclaimed “sceptic” of the plan, but that doesn’t mean he’s not entertaining the idea.
I thought the Americans had had enough of this war – it’s been my understanding talking to American friends and correspondents that it’s about time for their boys and girls in uniform to pack up and come back home before any more of them get their asses shot full of more holes than they need. And we’re not even broaching the subject of Iraq here, or the current icy relationship with Iran that could turn hot faster than you can pronounce Ahmedinejab. There are currently two wars going on with a third looming, and despite the fact that Obama’s administration didn’t start those wars, they don’t seem to be doing an awful lot to end them either.
Yeah, I know it’s not as simple as that – it’s not as though America can just gather their shit and leave, because at this point the region has been so destabilized that pulling out immediately could be disastrous. But the bottom line is Obama sold the American public and the world on his platform largely due to his anti-war proclamations, and now it’s looking more and more like he’s going to rescind on those assertions. Even if he doesn’t, staying in neutral is as good as going backwards, and either way – conducting two wars isn’t exactly conducive to world peace, in my estimation.
Hell, even the Taliban is getting their digs in over this whole Peace Prize debacle: spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted by the Associated Press as saying:
“The Nobel Prize for peace? Obama should have won the ‘Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians’!”
Okay, granted, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle a terrorist, but still – continuing a strategy borne of the dying days of the Bush administration can’t be good for your rep if you got hired on the basis of “not being George Bush”.
And that brings me to my next point – the Nobel committee has made a great deal of Obama’s potential to do good in the world. Yes, approval ratings for the guy have remained consistently high since he got the job, which bodes well for his administration, but there’s still a huge schism between “potential” and “demonstrable action”.
Robby Burns’ oft-quoted poem speaks to this:
“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”
For those of us not fluent in Ye Olde English, the thrust of this passage is, essentially, all the best intentions in the world account for fuck all, because nothing is certain and nobody ever got ahead on the basis of good intentions.
It’s all well and good for the Nobel committee to tell the world, “oh, we think Obama’s going to do a good job because he said so, and we’re giving him this award to motivate him to follow up on everything he’s promised.”
Actually, upon reading that last line, it’s not all well and good to say so. That would be like somebody handing me a Grammy because I might make a great album someday, or awarding an Oscar on the basis of a fantastic idea for a movie – the list goes on.
The difference, I guess, is that people already know Grammys and Academy Awards mean basically nothing in the grand scheme of things, but on some level the Nobel Peace Prize is still lauded as being meaningful. This is the award given to the likes Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Kofi Annan, and the fucking Dalai Lama.
These are people who quite literally changed the world – they didn’t just talk about changing the world. Anybody can do that. Hell, I’ve got all kinds of good ideas about changing the world that readers of this blog can attest to – and nobody’s giving me a million bucks for having great ideas, believe me.
To his credit, Barack dealt with this dubious honour in the best way he possibly could. Here’s what he had to say:
“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize…I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”
Okay, good. At least he’s not making out like he’s got the right to be on this list yet. The way elements of the media have been canonizing this guy since day one would probably swell the head of another man and make him start to believe his own hype, but it sounds like Barack’s keeping his wits about him. He’s also donating the $1.4 million prize to charity, which a lot of people are going to applaud, but really – he’s the president of the most powerful country on earth: what the hell does he need with a paltry million bucks? Frankly I’d be pissed if he did anything other than give the whole lot to people who need it.
If you want to be really cynical (and of course I do), you could call into question the whole idea of the Nobel Peace Prize as a concept – as my buddy Jay Lang just pointed out, you know what Alfred Nobel would have been remembered for if not for the Prize? Dynamite. Granted, he probably imagined it as a useful tool of construction, but just like everything else, the powers-that-be immediately went “you know what else we could blow up with this stuff? People!” So frankly I can’t blame him for trying to avoid being remembered as the guy who developed the “blow people up” device. But it does shed a very different light on the Peace Prize as this be-all, end-all award for making the world a better place.
Remember – the Nobel Peace Prize was also awarded to vaunted freedom fighter Nelson Mandela for his work towards tearing down apartheid in South Africa. In order to accomplish that goal, he had to blow a lot of stuff up (thanks Alfred!) and kill a lot of people, and if things had turned out differently, history could well have remembered him as a terrorist instead of a patron of peace.
It’s all in how you look at it, and I guess everybody is allowed to have their own opinions on the issue. Me, I’m still sitting on the fence as far as Barack Obama goes, but if I’m going to be honest, my ass is starting to hurt – sooner or later, I’m going to have to pick a side.
So let’s start here: does Barack Obama deserve a Nobel Peace Prize? Nope, not a chance. Will the next four years see positive change that could lead him to deserve that honour? Quite possibly, and despite all my cynicism, I still hope so.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions – I just hope that’s not the road we’re on.