By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 10, 2009
LONDON, Oct. 9 -- From a boardroom in Oslo, five Norwegians handpicked by their nation's parliament are kingmakers of the highest sort, each year honoring at least one individual or group for landmark achievements worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Their decision to honor President Obama less than nine months into his term, however, has critics questioning whether one of the globe's most prestigious awards has become largely a European political seal of approval. They noted that, in choosing Obama, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was celebrating a U.S. leader whose politics are perhaps closer to Europe's own than any president since Jimmy Carter, another winner of the prize.
"This decision does represent a European worldview," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "You've got the Nobel Committee reaching out across the Atlantic and saying, 'Look, here, finally a U.S. leader who also represents our same values.' "
After the Nobel prizes were established in 1901, the Norwegians were entrusted with choosing the peace prize winner because of their track record as objective 19th-century arbitrators. Yet the committee has been seen in recent years as broadening its mission to spotlight social causes popular in Europe, including the campaigns against poverty and global warming. The pick of former Democratic vice president Al Gore in 2007 was seen in part as a diplomatic swipe at President George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular in Europe.
On Friday, Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who chaired the selection committee, rejected criticism that the panel had selected Obama more for his aspirations than his accomplishments. Critics, he said, underestimated the tangible changes Obama has already made in U.S. policy.
"We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future but for what [Obama] has done in the previous year," he said in Oslo.
Jagland, who now heads the Council of Europe, a body focused on human rights and the rule of law in Europe and beyond, led a committee with members from across Norway's political spectrum. They included Kaci Kullmann Five, a conservative who serves on the board of that country's largest oil company, and Agot Valle, of the Socialist Left Party.
"We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do," Jagland said of Obama.
Experts note that the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a rotating five-member panel, previously made controversial choices, including U.S. diplomat Henry A. Kissinger in 1973 and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994.
Across the globe, reactions to Obama's selection ranged from anger among his political adversaries -- a Taliban spokesman condemned the choice -- to joy at the optimism expressed in picking a figure seen by many in the world as a transformative leader. Most heads of state hailed the decision, particularly in Europe, where European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called it nothing short of "a tribute to President Obama's commitment to the values of peace and progress of humanity."
Yet by honoring Obama so early in his administration, analysts said, the Nobel Committee risked raising expectations too high, especially in parts of the Arab world, where the U.S. leader has sought to strike a new chord. In Iraq, for instance, many expressed surprise that he had been rewarded before having realized any tangible accomplishments toward peace.
"I think the committee has gone mad," said Omar Mohammad, 43, a lawyer from the city of Fallujah. "We haven't seen anything from him yet. Words and promises only, no actions. His troops are still here, Guantanamo is not closed, and Israel is building new settlements."
Many noted that the White House has not made any significant progress on key foreign policy issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"This is the first time the award is given for wishful thinking," said Danny Danon, a member of the Israeli parliament from the ruling Likud party. He has been critical of Obama's efforts to force Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Some argued Friday that the committee was now one step further from fulfilling its mission. But others said the decision may, in some way, be more true to the spirit of the prize than earlier selections.
Fredrik S. Heffermehl, the Norwegian author of "Nobel's Will," said Obama's selection and the language the committee used in announcing it -- focusing on the importance of international cooperation and nuclear disarmament -- amounted to a "tremendous victory" in interpreting the original wishes of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who endowed the prizes through his will.
Yet even Heffermehl saw an element of politics in the decision. Norway, he said, was attempting to extend an olive branch to the United States after eight years of tense European-U.S. relations.
Though the prize is theoretically independent and does not reflect Norwegian politics, "the true situation is that it very much reflects official policies," he said.
This year is hardly the first time that has been the case. Theodore Roosevelt's selection in 1906, Heffermehl said, "was the first in a long tradition of wanting to keep good relations with the United States."
Correspondents Howard Schneider in Jerusalem and Nada Bakri in Baghdad and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.