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How we laughed when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize. It was like giving a man a gong for helping to put out a fire that he himself had been stoking up.
It was almost as funny as the news in 2007 that Tony Blair had been appointed a special peace envoy to the Middle East — yes, the Middle East — on behalf not just of the United States and Russia but also of the United Nations and the European Union. For those who enjoy gallows humour, the regular appointment of mass murderers and kleptocrats to the UN’s human rights commission is also quite amusing.
How do all these circles get squared? What makes these international bigwigs put together all these preposterous deals? One thing is reasonably clear, through the fog of war and diplomacy, and it is that there is nothing reliably noble about the Nobel prize. Many of the people who ought to have won it didn’t. Several who certainly shouldn’t have won it did, such as Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho of communist North Vietnam.
So I should not have been surprised to hear that Barack Obama has been offered the prize. What does surprise and sadden me is that he has accepted it. Like millions of other people, I admire Obama. I, too, was caught up in the general elation that a country with a shameful history of racism, my father’s country, could find a clever, well qualified, eloquent and charismatic candidate who was also black and then vote him into the White House. I thought then, and I still hope, that he may achieve great things.
Obama's Nobel prize is snub to Bill Clinton
However, the glaringly obvious point is that Obama hasn’t achieved anything very much yet. As his Texan predecessor might have said, so far he has been all hat and no cattle. That is hardly surprising as he has been in office for less than 10 months, but it is both foolish and wrong of him to accept a prize for something he has not achieved. Perhaps he wanted it because two eminent fellow Democrats, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, have got one too.
As an American commentator said, it is like accepting an Oscar now for being likely to make an Oscar-winning movie next year. It casts great doubt on Obama’s judgment and integrity — can’t he see the Nobel nonsense for what it is? — and gives comfort to his critics. It makes this apparently decent man complicit in the sentimental ruthlessness and meaningless verbiage of most international bodies.
But perhaps, for all Obama’s appearance of being better than them, he is really one of them, not one of us.
It is anyone’s guess what the Nobel peace prize people are really up to. If it is odd to give out the prize before the winner has reached the goal, it is odder still to nominate him when he has barely crossed the starting line: the committee’s nominations for the Nobel peace prize this year had to be sent in by February 1, only 12 days after Obama had become president. Obama did almost nothing of any importance during those 12 days at the tail end of the Nobel nomination period.
This is very Alice in Wonderland — all prizes to be declared before the start. It is also the way of the wicked old world and for that reason it is something a good man should be seen to avoid. Can it be that Obama is already intoxicated with the exuberance of his own celebrity? For that is all he is so far — a well-meaning super-celebrity.
The Nobel people claim they are trying to promote what Obama stands for; they want to endorse his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy” and to encourage people to “go along with his concept of zero nuclear power”. They also claim there’s nothing new about awarding the prize for good intentions; that’s why Willy Brandt got it and Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of their number said the committee wanted to encourage Obama, another said his win would help Africa. One can only feel grateful that they did not offer it to encourage Tony Blair for his high-flown rhetoric in his early days about healing the scar that is Africa and generally speaking about saving the world.
The story of Blair is a cautionary tale that the Nobel committee ought to have studied before choosing Obama to bear the unbearable burden of world peace.
Like Obama writ small, Blair came to power in Britain on a powerful wave of euphoria as an eloquent, decent man who really cared about people and who promised that his government would be whiter than white — I apologise to Obama and to black people generally but that is how Blair expressed his moral aspirations — and all kinds of people believed in him.
For reasons I cannot understand, Blair quickly became much admired among international power brokers — and still is. But the inescapable truth is that he left office in deep moral disgrace, having (among other things) tricked his country into a terrible war; even the Nobel committee might have been embarrassed had it made the mistake of offering the untried Blair an anticipatory peace prize in 1997.
I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is anything like the discredited Blair. But anything is possible. Stuff happens. The Nobel committee betrays an astonishing political naivety in endorsing Obama as a man of peace when the world is so unstable, the choices before him so imponderable, the power of the American establishment so unavoidable and when we still know so little of his real calibre.
I can’t help suspecting there are other explanations behind this award. I suspect it isn’t about ideas or policies so much as about feeling. It’s about a feeling which is usually considered adolescent — the emotional hunger of the groupie.
Adults now, more and more, seem to display the emotional incontinence of the teenager; in the case of Obama, this is made all the more acceptable because he is black.
I suspect that Obama appeals to Nobel committee members, as to countless others given to hero-worship, both for the stardust he gives off and for the feelgood effect he has just by being black.
Idolising Obama means you are a good person. This is inverted racism but I suspect it’s there: would a white man, just like Obama but not black, have been offered this prize? The question constantly asked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s subversive Ali G character keeps coming back to me: “Is it ’cos I is black?” And the answer in this case is probably yes — another excellent reason for Obama to turn down this prize and to earn his laurels for himself.
The Sunday Times | Sunday, October 11, 2009