Obama's Nobel: Mixed Blessing at Best

by Michael Crowley | October 9, 2009

It’s not often that the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize wonders whether he actually wants it. But that thought must have crossed Barack Obama’s mind when he was awoken at 6 a.m. this morning and told the stunning news. For Obama, winning the award after just nine months in office—for having created “a new international climate” of peace—is, at best, a mixed blessing. (Read Ed Kilgore on the confused conservative reaction to the news, Noam Scheiber on why 2007 winner Al Gore must not be too happy, and TNR's historical take on the Nobel Prize from our archives.)

At home, conservatives are already sneering that the award, granted on the basis of so little tangible accomplishment, further demonstrates Obama’s hollow celebrity status. Remember the McCain campaign "Celebrity" ad featuring Paris Hilton and images of Obama before cheering throngs in Europe?  This time, however, the complaint feels less specious. This award would be vastly more legitimate and inspiring if and when, for instance, Obama is actually able to get Middle East peace talks moving again; or after, say, America and Iran reach a diplomatic rapproachement. Instead one suspects that even many fair-minded Americans (especially ones looking for a job) will roll their eyes. And you can be sure Stewart and Leno are already writing the jokes.

Overseas, the Nobel might help marginally--although in some ways not at all. It’s impossible to imagine the news from Stockholm moving either the Israelis or the Arabs to make peace-process concessions. (Neither Bibi Netanyahu nor King Abdullah are great sentimentalists.) The award is a useful affirmation to Obama's faith in internationalism on issues like global warming and nuclear disarmament. And it's likely to re-energize his standing in Europe, from whence it comes, and where such honorifics carry the most currency.

But there’s an irony here: Obama doesn’t need Europe’s help primarily for achieving world peace. He needs NATO support for putting a lid on Afghanistan, and Germany and France's backing for tough economic sanctions on Iran should diplomacy fail to defang its nuclear program. The most important impact of this prize may be a slight boost in Obama’s ability to pursue a war and confront his Persian rivals.

At best, then, the award is a mixed blessing. That’s why Obama should consider the advice of Chait, Massie, and others and, in a gesture of his humility, refuse to accept it. It would be the right thing to do in principle. It might also be smart politics.

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