Friday, October 09, 2009

Peace, Man

Everybody on the planet reading the news this morning, maybe including the Nobel Peace Prize committee itself, is a bit confused about the prize going to President Obama. Sure, Obama's a great guy and all and we still have hope he'll turn attention and action on deeply urgent issues back in the right direction. The one principal effort thus far is acting on the promise to start drawing down in Iraq. Closing Guantanamo, given political obstacles at home, still remains a twinkle in the administration's eye, however (although the administration has been making its own case for indefinite detention elsewhere). Further, the Nobel Peace Prize committee doesn't always give the award for past achievements but as a spur to act on potential. But the Peace Prize eight months into his presidency? Joshua Marshall kinda sorta defends the decision in about the best way one can as we all recover from the initial shock,
This is an odd award. You'd expect it to come later in Obama's presidency and tied to some particular event or accomplishment. But the unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world, the 'hyper-power' as the French have it, became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it's a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was 'normal history' rather than dark aberration.
He is right. Americans apparently have much less ability to view the past eight years with any kind of distanced objectivity that attempts even the slightest nod to impartiality, but the rest of the world pretty much watched the Bush administration's actions and diplomacy in horror and often humiliation. The Prize in this sense represents the kind of relief Marshall is indicating.

Yet, the award is so sudden and unexpected that even Obama's US political opponents haven't had the time to come up with a suitably outrageous conspiratorial reaction. Here's Mickey Kaus this morning sounding, in my view, quite reasonable (except for the dumb pseudo-psychology narcissism projection thing the right has going),
Turn it down! Politely decline. Say he’s honored but he hasn’t had the time yet to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. Result: He gets at least the same amount of glory–and helps solve his narcissism problem and his Fred Armisen (’What’s he done?’) problem, demonstrating that he’s uncomfortable with his reputation as a man overcelebrated for his potential long before he’s started to realize it.
I think he's right. Obama should turn down the prize. He should use the opportunity to direct the world's attention onto the path away from ancient and recent animosities and towards collectively tackling major pressing problems like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. Part of this is a matter of rallying and cheerleading. Part of it is genuine leadership. On the large-scale collective cooperation problems, a lot of the world is ready for such leadership. I'm confident Obama will recognize this moment for what it is.

Additionally, however superficial a perception and obvious a political strategy of the opposition that it may be, Pres. Obama has been pegged as "messianic" and the label and synonymous claims have stuck to some extent with the public. Maybe this is because Obama's words and deeds convey the idea that it's a good thing to be well-educated and intelligent, and his knowledge and intelligence is exceptional.

Nevertheless, Kaus is right. It's also a moment for humility, an acknowledgment that we're nowhere close to the achievements that need to be made. He is a fallible being who recognizes that genuine, effective action on issues such as climate change, global terrorism, nukes, or the global recession and its grim future outlook on employment can only be tackled as a collective by their very nature. The message ought to be that he's ready to and can lead, but that he also has a genuinely open mind ready to deliberate over and rethink as a collective how the planet can and should move into its future.

I hope he says something like this. In five minutes....

UPDATE (12:48pm):

Bunch of reactions compiled here and here. Hmm. Did I speak too quickly? Maybe. But the main point is that this is an honor and an extended hand of trust.

Quite strangely, it is a self-referential event: a great accomplishment bestowed on the potential of great accomplishment, thereby realizing one great accomplishment, thus confirming the award.

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