By Lindsay Beyerstein
It's already a truism that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for being not-George W. Bush. This talking point gets repeated as if it's a witty put down. It's supposed to trivialize the win. The implication is that Obama won just for showing up. On closer examination, winning for not being Bush is a pretty substantial distinction in its own right.
Most commentators implicitly assume Obama won just for what he's done as president or what he promises to do in office. In fact, Obama earned the prize for waging a successful campaign to unseat a ruling party that rejected the rule of law at home and abroad. Remember how hard that was?
Much has been made of the fact that nominations for the prize closed in February, just after Obama was sworn in. Obama did take some of his boldest steps towards peace to date during his earliest days in office. One of his first acts was to order the closure of prison at Guantanamo Bay. That was an courageous act of profound national and international significance. He also quickly repudiated the Bush administration's torture policies and shut down its secret prisons.
If the 2008 election happened in Africa or the Middle East it would seem obvious that an opposition leader who restored the rule of law and set about reintegrating his country into the family of nations would be racking up points towards a Nobel Peace Prize before he even took the oath of office.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama was this year's most deserving candidate, and if not, why not. For all the points in Obama's favor, he's still escalating the war in Afghanistan and signing off on drone strikes that kill 50 civilians for every combatant. He's allowing the State Department to slow walk its response to the coup in Honduras. He's backing Mexico's brutal and pointless war on drugs. GTMO's still not closed. He appears to be in no hurry to prosecute the CIA torturers or even to fully investigate their crimes.
To many American liberals it seems absurd that this record would merit a peace prize, but our perspective is different from that of the Nobel committee. We're evaluating Obama relative to our vision of a perfectly peaceful president. So, of course he comes up wanting.
The Nobel Peace Prize is all about celebrating nascent efforts and rewarding relative improvements. (They gave the Prize to the ICBL and there are still landmines all over the place!) We don't have to discount one perspective to appreciate the other.
The Nobel Committee's penchant for rewarding relative improvements makes sense as applied to other countries. A number of Westerners have nominated the Iranian democracy movement for a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, had the Green Revolution prevailed, it would have brought to power Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the diehard proponent of a nuclear Iran formerly known as the Butcher of Beirut. Still, all things considered, if the demonstrators had successfully challenged Ahmedinejad's attempted election fraud to install a duly elected Mousavi, that would have been a huge step forward, an achievement worthy of a Peace Prize.
In choosing Obama, the Nobel Committee focused on the really big picture. For all his shortcomings, Obama has fundamentally changed the U.S.'s orientation towards the rest of the world. After eight years of contempt and lawlessness from the Bush Administration, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that America could regain regain its standing in the international community. Regaining trust is a two-way street. Any president can say he wants to improve relations with other countries, but it's not a given that those countries will respond in kind. When they do, that's an achievement for the president.
On the campaign trail, Obama promised to restore the U.S.'s place in the world community and the Nobel Peace Prize is proof that he's fulfilling that promise. It's a testament to his leadership that he makes it look easy.
[x-posted at Majikthise]