Will Peace Prize Handcuff President When Time Comes for an Air Strike?

From the age of 20, Barack Obama has collected acclaim, awards and prizes not for his accomplishments (which have always been rather scanty), but for his potential. You would think with the guy nearing 50 and elected President that the prizes for "most promising young man" would cease. But no! The Nobel committee has just awarded him one more.

Waiting in the wings: the Vatican. Why wait until the guy has performed his posthumous miracles to confer sainthood upon him? Think of all the amazing miracles he might perform in the future.

Actually, Barack Obama might have benefited had the Nobel gone to someone else. The prize functions, as one contributor to my NewMajority.com website quipped, as a form of "preventive diplomacy": a pre-emptive intervention against possible future military actions by the Obama administration.

Maybe the repeated attempt by the European left to use the prestige of the Nobel award to constrain U.S. power deserves a special title of its own: "prizefare."

Can a peace prize winner authorize air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities? Escalate the war in Afghanistan? Does the prize not add an extra dose of embarrassment to Mr. Obama's decision earlier in the week not to meet with the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel honouree?

We call it "lawfare" when hostile external or internal forces use a nation's own legal system against it. Maybe the repeated attempt by the European left to use the prestige of the Nobel award to constrain U.S. power deserves a special title of its own: "prizefare."

The prize presents Mr. Obama with some interesting ethics challenges. Strictly speaking, the prize money should default to the U.S. Treasury: U.S. presidents are not allowed to accept foreign gifts, not even foreign gifts to their favourite charities. Perhaps inventive lawyering will find some way to circumvent the rule.

It will take more than lawyering, however, to circumvent the perception that something very odd happened. Nominations for the prize closed on Feb. 1--a week and a half after Mr. Obama's inauguration. It is impossible that the prize can honor any achievement of the President's, because there were no presidential achievements to honor at the time the award was proposed.

So what is being honored here? An aspiration? But whose aspiration? Mr. Obama is no foreign policy idealist, that's clear. He showed scant sympathy for the demonstrators against the Iranian regime, who irritatingly complicated his attempt to strike a deal with the Iranian leadership. The snub to the Dalai Lama looks more like the culmination of a pattern than an unconsidered gaffe or unwelcome necessity.

The prize itself may reflect internal Norwegian politics more than anything else. The peace prize is awarded by a five-member committee of active and former members of the Norwegian parliament. Three of the five belong to Norway's left-of-centre parties, and that may explain the committee's aggressive recent interventions into U.S. domestic politics: Barack Obama in 2009, Al Gore in 2007, Jimmy Carter in 2002.

In D.C., meanwhile, Mr. Obama is acting much more like the elder George Bush (with his outreach to post-Tiananmen Square China) than like liberal foreign policy icons such as John F. Kennedy or even Mr. Carter.

Peace through accommodation of the aggressive and the repressive is, however, very much an aspiration of the European left. That was their policy toward the Soviet Union, and now it is their policy toward Iran and toward radical Islam within Europe. In awarding the prize to the accomplishment-free Mr. Obama, the Norwegian parliamentarians who voted the prize were not so much recognizing the young President, so much as they were honoring themselves and their own timid foreign-policy creed.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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