Friday, October 9, 2009

The Audacity of the Nobel Committee

The sound you could hear this morning was of heads being scratched around the world.

Very quickly, the Nobel Committee found itself having not just to explain its choice of President Barack Obama for the Peace Prize, but to defend it.

There have been controversial selections before, but rarely one that caused this much puzzlement.

Yes, as the committee said, President Obama had changed the tone of American diplomacy, particularly in contrast to the Bush years. As more than one commentator had put it, the Bush/Cheney administration had used diplomacy as a last resort.

Now, the committee said, there was an American president who wanted to talk about Middle East peace, about reducing nuclear arsenals, about Iranian uranium enrichment, about climate change.

But to give him the most prestigious prize in the world for merely the aspirations of policy rather than for any results seemed unprecedented.

In the past, as encouragement, the Nobel Prize had be awarded to personalities who were in the midst of campaigns deemed to be desirable but which had not yet been successful. There had even been awards to people many thought shouldn't have received it — Henry Kissinger in 1973 for negotiating a cease-fire in Vietnam comes to mind. (His North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, declined the honor.)

But it's the timing of this award that has caused such wonder. It's not just that it is only nine months or so into the Obama administration, at a time when, however many initiatives there are, there is not yet much to show for them. It's the fact that the nominations for the award actually went in last February when Mr. Obama had barely been in office a month.

In announcing the award, the Nobel committee said, "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future." But others have wondered if hope is enough. Certainly there was audacity in this selection.