O's Albatross
Misguided Nobel Will Weigh on the Rest of His Presidency

Americans were justifiably proud last week of their many Nobel Prize winners. Eight of the nine honorees in physics, chemistry and medicine were US citizens, some native-born, some naturalized, a near total American sweep. And their achievements were glorious: better understanding how DNA works, the basis for enormous medical progress; developing fiber-optic cable, revolutionizing global communications; and advances in cell biology, with enormous implications for treating cancer. In each case, these breakthroughs, some made as long as 20 years ago, have proven themselves beyond the laboratory, and already made enormous real-world differences.

Next to these marvels, how to explain the Nobel Peace Prize, the most prestigious of all, to President Barack Obama, in office less than nine months?

The Nobel Prize web site says the awards recognize "extraordinary achievements," but the Obama citation refers only to his "extraordinary efforts," a dramatic contrast. Accordingly, President Obama was gracious and humble in his remarks after the award, but he would have done better to decline the award entirely, and invite consideration only after he fashioned a real record of achievement.

But it is otherworldly and in fact dangerous in national security matters to confuse emotions with reality.

Unfortunately, this year's Peace Prize follows a decades-long series of politicized decisions by the Norwegian Nobel committee. The committee has repeatedly rewarded its ideological brethren, the common theme being a desire to produce a more modest role for the United States in world affairs, and a larger role for multilateral organizations, or, as some describe it, "global governance."

By contrast, our first two sitting presidents to receive the Nobel Peace Prize had real accomplishments behind them. Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 won recognition for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. Both the warring parties and contemporary analysts credited the former Rough Rider as the central player in resolving the conflict, bringing great credit to him and the rising global power of the United States.

Next was Woodrow Wilson for the year 1919 (not actually announced until 1920, along with that year's prize). Recognizing Wilson's Fourteen Points, his central role in the Treaty of Versailles and creation of the League of Nations, the Nobel Peace Prize honored the most important act of American diplomatic leadership in the world to that date. The Treaty of Versailles was defeated in the Senate, and America never joined the League, in large measure due to Wilson's domestic political misjudgments and incompetence, but the importance of his work internationally cannot be disputed.

Next to these giants (Roosevelt being one of four presidents memorialized on Mount Rushmore), what has Obama done? Tellingly, no one actually argues that his international accomplishments justify the award. Instead, they contend that it is the prospect of accomplishments down the road that they are trying to encourage, and moral leadership. Some cite Mother Theresa's 1973 Nobel Peace Prize as an example of such an award, itself a breathtaking comparison, given Mother Theresa's life work was not simply a nine-month run in the Calcutta slums.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with encouraging hope and the possibility of future success. But it is otherworldly and in fact dangerous in national security matters to confuse emotions with reality. In fact, however, these vacuous aspirational justifications for giving the Nobel to Obama simply obscure the real ideological motivation behind the award: the Norwegian committee is promoting a cause, its cause. They seek to promote and encourage a particular kind of American, one who finds favor with European Leftists, who constantly ask, paraphrasing Rex Harrison's musical query in "My Fair Lady": "why can't Americans . . . be more like us?"

In 2002, for example, in selecting Jimmy Carter, the then-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee said the award was intended as "a kick in the leg" to President Bush, which should hardly be a qualification, let alone a public justification. Then, in 2007, former Vice President Al Gore's selection for his global-warming work was widely seen as criticism of Bush administration environmental policy. Over the last several decades, moreover, the Nobel has repeatedly honored UN agencies or personnel, rewards increasing in inverse proportion to the organization's effectiveness.

This year, one Nobel Committee member, Aagot Valle, of Norway's Socialist Left party, said we should view the selection as "support and a commitment for Obama." Indeed. Unable to vote in America's 2008 presidential election, the Nobel Committee apparently decided to vote this year, making their ideological perspective unmistakable. Valle and the committee chairman, a failed former Norwegian prime minister, both referred to Obama's hopes for nuclear disarmament. But they are just that: hopes. Ronald Reagan also aspired to a world without nuclear weapons. Where is his Nobel Peace Prize? Obviously, Reagan was not the right kind of American, not one appealing to the Norwegian and broader European Left.

Their message really is quite straightforward: "Jimmy Carter in 2002, Al Gore in 2007 and now Barack Obama. Do you Americans get the point yet?" It is precisely the preachiness and attitude of moral superiority inherent in these awards that many Americans find offensive, and which may, ironically, leave President Obama in a more difficult position here and abroad than before the award.

What, for example, what will be the world's reaction if he agrees to his military commanders' request to increase American forces in Afghanistan by 40,000 troops? What will be the reaction here if he does not? And this is far from the last hard choice the new Peace Prize winner will face during the remainder of his presidency, from Middle East conflicts, to Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation, to Hugo Chavez in this hemisphere. The president owes his best answers to his fellow Americans, not five miscellaneous Norwegian politicians.

The Nobel Committee, as its chairman proudly boasted, has engaged in "realpolitik," directly intervening in American politics. It has thereby shown just how little it understands our country, it has gravely undermined its own credibility, and it has devalued the Peace Prize itself. Instead of preening itself on the wonderfulness of honoring Obama, the Nobel Committee should have worried more that it was actually hanging an albatross around his neck.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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