Arab world befuddled by Obama's Nobel
DAMASCUS - Arabs were taken completely aback on Friday morning, when Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland announced that United States President Barack Obama was the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples".
Obama had been nominated for the prize in January, just days before he began his term at the White House. The US said that he would donate the US$1.4 million that comes with it to an unnamed charity, confirming that the president would go to Oslo to receive the award in December. As the news ripped throughout the Arab world, reactions were mixed and caused more than a stir in the online world, in print journalism, on the streets of Arab capitals, and in the upper echelons of power throughout the Middle East.
Many immediately snapped that a Nobel is usually not granted for good intentions, and although Obama ostensibly has plenty of goodwill towards the Arab world, he has not yet managed to transform any of his promises into reality. The peace process is still on hold, due to his inability to get the hardline cabinet in Israel to cease settlements in the Palestinian territories, or to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip. American troops are still heavily present in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where a security disaster has been snowballing since six attacks ripped through Baghdad last August, killing over 100 Iraqis.
Additionally, the Arab world is bitter over US opposition to a controversial United Nations-mandated report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza last December. For these reasons, many Arabs are skeptical. Some say that it was too early to grant Obama a Nobel, arguing that apart from words, he has not yet helped make the Arab world a better or safer place.
Obama deserved it, however, for turning a new page in relations between his government and American Muslims, and to Muslims in the world at large. Examples of this are his overtures to Iran, his speech in Cairo in June, and his warm greetings to the world's Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. If anything, many saw it as testimony to how bad George W Bush had been during his eight years at the White House. All Obama had to do was show up, breathing fresh air into the international community, to deserve a Nobel.
The Arab intelligentsia was equally surprised - just like Obama himself - but more understanding. Many were actually surprised, saying it was way too early to bestow on him an honor held by towering figures like Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979) and Nelson Mandela (1993). The US president said that he did not view the Nobel as recognition for his own accomplishments, but rather for the goals he had set out for the United States and the new world order, describing it as "a call to action".
Obama quickly added, "I am both surprised and humbled." Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, facing a storm of anger from his own people over the Goldstone Report, a United Nations analysis of the Gaza War, was among the first to congratulate Obama. The Islamic group Hamas was unimpressed, saying that he had given the Palestinians nothing but promises since coming to power in January, and did not deserve a Nobel. Arab League secretary general Amr Mousa commented, "I want to say that we feel that Obama has achieved a lot for his country and for the world and he deserves what has been granted to him. It is a positive move that will lead to more understanding and relations between the United States and other countries, including Egypt. So, I feel that this is a good occasion to build on that for the future."
Obama is not the first US president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Others include Theodore Roosevelt (1906), Woodrow Wilson (1919) and Jimmy Carter (2002). Three secretaries of state, Fred B Kellogg, Cordell Hull and Henry Kissinger, received the award in 1929, 1945 and 1973, respectively. But Roosevelt did not get the Nobel until five years into his presidency, after a long and colorful career as vice president, governor of New York and assistant cabinet secretary during the administration of president William McKinley. His Nobel was for negotiating an end to the Russian-Japanese war.
Wilson also received it towards the end of his career, for helping end World War I, for making the Paris Peace Conference happen, and for laying the blueprint for the League of Nations. Wilson got it six years into his presidency, at the age of 63, two years before his death in 1921. Carter got it at the age of 78, more than 20 years after leaving the White House in 1981. His Nobel was awarded for the heroic feats of the Carter Center, which he established to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering.
Carter had promoted democracy, mediated and prevented conflict, helped eradicate disease and monitored 70 elections in 28 countries. He also worked on conflict-resolution in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Haiti, Bosnia, Ethiopia, North Korea and Sudan.
What truly surprises world observers about Obama's prize is that universally recognized statesmen like Mahatma Gandhi never received a Nobel. Gandhi was nominated for the award in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948. That year the Nobel committee did not give a peace award, claiming "there was no suitable living candidate" to receive it.
A similar argument, theoretically, could have been made in 2009. The Nobel committee appears to have wanted to empower Obama, to encourage him to do more in the remaining three years of his tenure at the White House. If - by some miracle - he is able to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, granting a state to the Palestinians and restoring the Golan Heights to Syria, while creating a stable and working democracy in Iraq - then Obama should deserve another Nobel.
Only then would he outdo all of his predecessors combined, Roosevelt, Wilson and Carter. The only person to ever receive the Nobel prize twice was French chemist Madame Marie Curie, in physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911. Obama would then break yet another record, being the only person to receive it twice, in the same category.
Then again, those who believe in Obama and his "Yes, we can" policy argue that nothing is impossible for the first African-American elected president of the United States.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.