Nobel for Obama Brings Praise, Ire
Surprise Award May Prove Mixed Blessing

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

President Obama on Friday won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, bringing the relatively novice leader a new measure of prestige on the world stage but also potential complications in carrying out a foreign policy that includes managing two wars.

In making Obama the third sitting U.S. president to win the prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised the president's cooperative approach to global issues, a clear rebuke of the Bush administration's aversion to international organizations and treaties.

The prize comes after Obama has been in office less than nine months, and as he decides whether to send additional combat troops to Afghanistan for a war effort that will now be measured against the principles of the award. His selection from 205 nominees inflamed U.S. conservatives and drew criticism abroad across a political spectrum ranging from the Afghan insurgents he is fighting to Israeli hawks he is trying to bring to the peace table with Palestinians.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden a few hours after being awakened with the news at 6 a.m., Obama said he did not view the prize as an affirmation of his accomplishments.

"To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who have inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace," he said.

And yet, he said: "I know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement. It's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes."

Obama is pushing to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, stop Iran's nuclear enrichment program, pass legislation to slow global warming, and strengthen international nuclear nonproliferation protocols -- all of which require broad international cooperation. In some respects, the prize could make his approach more difficult on issues as diverse as climate change and Afghanistan, where Obama has largely failed to secure significant new resources from NATO allies eight years into the war.

"Not only will he be judged in the future against this exacting standard, but also it may complicate some decisions, such as the one he must soon make concerning Afghanistan," said William A. Galston, a Clinton administration adviser now at the Brookings Institution.

Obama is weighing whether to send as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, potentially exposing himself to criticism that he is not living up to the ideals embodied by the prize. "While I hope that such considerations will not influence his decisions, they don't make his life any easier," Galston said.

White House aides disputed the notion that the prize will be a political liability. They said Obama was not aware he had been nominated and never lobbied for the honor, which carries a $1.4 million cash award. David Axelrod, a senior adviser, said Obama has told his staff he wants to give the money to charity "in a way that promotes the ideals he is talking about and that that prize committee honored today."

The prize announcement came a week after the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen rejected Obama's personal appeal to award the 2016 Games to his adopted home town of Chicago. In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee highlighted Obama's call for a world free of nuclear weapons, which he first made in an April speech in Prague.

Outreach to the World

Largely unknown outside the United States before beginning his presidential campaign nearly three years ago, Obama began his administration by outlawing torture in interrogations and by pledging to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by Jan. 22, 2010. He has called those Bush-era policies mistakes that have undermined the U.S. image abroad.

Obama advisers have described his foreign policy as based on "mutual interest and mutual respect," and on the idea that global diplomacy functions on the principle of "rights and responsibilities" of sovereign nations. The speech in Prague was one of four major addresses this year in which he has discussed those themes.

Those include his June "new beginning" speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. The next month, he gave an address to the Ghanaian parliament in Accra, in which he assured Africans of U.S. support but reminded them they were ultimately responsible for their future. Last month, he told the U.N. General Assembly that he was "well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world."

In announcing Obama as the winner -- to gasps of surprise -- in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, the committee noted that his "diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

"The committee seems to have been saying, 'We had eight years without strong U.S. leadership for peace and now we have someone who will put the country's energies behind Middle East talks and nuclear arms control,'" said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. "I think this will lift Obama's prestige and may make it easier for him to avoid escalation in Afghanistan."

In his Rose Garden appearance, Obama said that "we have to confront the world as we know it today." He said he is "the commander in chief of a country that's responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies." Hours later, he gathered his national security staff members to continue deliberations over whether to expand the war effort in Afghanistan, where 100,000 U.S. and international troops are on the ground.

Although President Hamid Karzai sent Obama a congratulatory note, others in Afghanistan were dismayed he was given the prize.

"What is this for? Please show me which peace?" asked Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Wardak province. "The Americans are killing 75 Pashtuns a day in Afghanistan. For this they give a prize to Obama? They should call him a criminal."

The breadth of domestic opposition to the choice suggested a resentment that could undermine his ability to carry out some of his most ambitious foreign policy goals.

In Afghanistan, Obama will probably need Republican congressional support if he decides to send additional combat troops, a move much of his own party opposes. Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement that "it is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."

Axelrod said: "In Washington, things often get sliced and diced, and I'm not surprised that's happening here. I'm also not particularly concerned by it."

Asked whether the criticism threatens Obama's domestic and foreign policy agendas, Axelrod said: "I don't believe that those who think winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a political liability are likely to be supportive of what the president is doing anyway."

The two previous sitting U.S. presidents who won the prize did so in their second terms in office. Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese war, and Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for founding the League of Nations and helping frame the post-World War I peace. Jimmy Carter, who as president brokered the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, won the prize more than two decades after leaving office.

An Aspirational Prize

As Obama noted, his prize appears to fit into the category of awards given to promote a cause, which in the past have largely gone to human rights advocates and political dissidents who often work in grave danger.

Not all such aspirational prizes have had the desired affect. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was awarded a share of the 1994 prize for his agreement to recognize Israel's right to exist and begin a process of negotiation and limited self-government that would conclude with a Palestinian state. Those talks collapsed a few years later amid violence that many accused Arafat of fomenting.

"Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum -- when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes," said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley, referring to the December incident in which an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during his final visit to Baghdad.

Obama will travel to Oslo in December to accept the award, bringing him to the region at the same time as the U.N. Climate Change Conference will be held in Copenhagen.

The Nobel Committee cited Obama's "more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that Obama had not yet decided to attend the conference, which he said does not officially include heads of state.

Staff writers Dan Balz, Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear in Washington and correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company