Peace Prize Awarded Based on Achievement or Aspirations

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; 3:14 PM

There are essentially two kinds of Nobel Peace Prizes -- achievement-based and "aspirational." President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to win an aspirational peace prize. He might one day come to view it as a straitjacket.

Only two other sitting presidents have won the Nobel peace prize, and they both won it for actual achievements. 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 post-World War I peace.

An aspirational Nobel is designed to promote a cause, and sometimes it backfires spectacularly. One example is the 1994 prize given to, among others, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for promoting Middle East peace. Few today would question the conclusion that the prize was awarded prematurely, especially because the peace talks cited by the committee later collapsed in a spasm of violence that Arafat indirectly -- or some say directly -- promoted.

Obama's award, announced Friday, is a classic case of an aspirational award. The committee cited his "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" -- an acknowledgement that those efforts have yet to yield results. It also mentioned his push to eliminate nuclear weapons, a dream that Ronald Reagan also had but failed to achieve. Even Obama has conceded that this lofty goal likely will not happen during his presidency.

"Let be clear," Obama said Friday in a speech at the White House, after the prize was announced, "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people of all nations."

Even so, Obama will now be judged forever by this new yardstick. And he might find it a burden, especially as he must always keep U.S. interests -- not worldwide acclaim -- at the forefront of his policies.

Consider the long list of actions that Obama has promised: closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year; achieving Middle East peace; ending the war in Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; halting Iran's possible drive to acquire a nuclear weapon; persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Many of these have proven to be very difficult challenges. Obama appears likely to miss the deadline to close Guantanamo. The Middle East peace push is nearly off the rails, with Obama shifting course last month after failing to persuade Israel to agree to even a temporary settlement freeze. The North Korea talks have been moribund.

Obama has on his desk a proposal to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 40,000 or more, a decision that could extend the fighting there for many years.

Iran is perhaps the most vexing challenge. Some progress toward a negotiated solution was made last week in Geneva, but it is too early to tell whether that will be sustainable. The diplomatic efforts may fail, forcing the president to consider sanctions that may bring suffering to the Iranian people. Ultimately, he may find on his desk a Pentagon proposal for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Or he may get a call from an Israeli prime minister saying such a strike is imminent.

An attack on Iran may be in the U.S. interests. But is it something a Nobel peace prize winner would authorize?

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