Former Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer considers the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama "a farce". Coming from a former leader of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia, this should be no surprise. Republican shock jocks in America like Rush Limbaugh long ago declared all-out war on the Obama presidency and the recognition of an international committee based in Norway was just more fuel for their xenophobia and paranoia about international socialist conspiracies and the Obama reform agenda.
What might be more surprising is the criticism the award has received from progressives who apparently consider it "too early" to judge Obama’s leadership. The most extreme ideologues on the Left meanwhile have had no difficulty transferring all the hate directed at George W Bush at his successor. Veteran socialist John Passant in The Age even contends that Obama is a "war criminal".
It is true that Obama has not yet completed the withdrawal from Iraq, and may even be considering a military surge in Afghanistan. Yet these two quagmires which were not of his making cannot be ended easily, just as he cannot simply end support for Israel and expect instantaneous peace to break out. It is possible that a withdrawal now from Afghanistan and the total isolation of Israel could lead to a worsened situation in both regions. Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton have been cautious when it comes to questions of war, but even in this respect the direction they have flagged is completely different to that of the previous regime.
Obama has so far not been the kind of "crash through or crash" leader that the Left loves to lionise, like Gough Whitlam in Australia. Obama seems to be be moving slowly, in part because of the nature of the American political system, and in part because his administration is working on so large an agenda.
In the same week that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he addressed the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a peak gay rights group. In fine rhetorical form, Obama brought the audience to its feet with his vision of a country where "hope is stronger than hate, of love more powerful than any insult or injury". It was an incredible speech.
Even that, however, received a mixed reception from activists who feel the president is not moving fast enough. Yet the speech itself was revolutionary not only in content but context. For an African-American president to stand up proudly before a gay audience and connect the civil rights and gay rights movement is a remarkable event in itself. That law-making is slow and tedious should not detract from the central fact that America is now heading in the right direction.
In the same way, Obama’s speech in Cairo broke through barriers and laid the rhetorical groundwork for a rapprochement between the United States and Muslim countries. Of course there is no way that one speech would undo the poisonous legacy of the Bush Administration, just as one speech would not undo the legacy of centuries of oppression. Yet the change in direction was clear. At the same time, Obama reached out to Iran with a conciliatory message.
Critics like Downer have been quick to claim that the nominations for the prize closed on 11 February, before Cairo, but the committee’s unanimous decision was not made until 24 September.
In September, the revival at the United Nations of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty alone was a great achievement that warranted more recognition than the media seemed willing to provide. Perhaps this is because the dream of a nuclear weapons free world is one that almost died under the Bush regime. As such Obama could easily have left us with the status quo. Yet he has even dropped US plans for a missile defence shield in Europe in order to revive relations with Russia and improve the prospects for nuclear disarmament.
Obama’s performance at the UN itself was evidence of his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples", fulfilling clearly Alfred Nobel’s request that the winner of the Peace Prize "shall have done the most, or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". Frankly, as surprising as the award may have been, it is difficult to think of a person who has led so sustained an effort to change the direction not merely of one people, but of the whole world.
Obama has been criticised for running heavily to the centre, for abandoning his supporters to win over opponents. Yet this is what one always hears from the Left whenever the Left’s party is in power. Power divides the Left just as it unites the Right. In power the Left tends to splinter into those who understand that achieving something concrete takes time and those who want leaders to perform miracles. Obama has not achieved miracles, because only gods do that, and they don’t exist. This is why the Left is perennially unhappy, even in victory.
Obama is the best hope for progressive change in the world today. The Nobel Peace Prize committee recognised as much. It’s time that Obama’s erstwhile supporters realised it too.
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