Ian Birrell: This award is premature – and potentially very foolish


When Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, the American humourist Tom Lehrer declared that political satire was dead.

One wonders what he might say today after this year's award was handed to a man who has done little more than offer an aspiration to bring about peace. Oh yes, and at a time when he is wondering whether or not to send thousands more troops to join an increasingly questionable war.

President Obama is an admirable man. And the sages of Oslo are right that he has fostered a new climate in international politics, his emphasis on nations and institutions working together a welcome break from the dark days of George Bush. But has he actually achieved anything tangible yet? Gaza is a morass, Iraq a mess and Iran a nerve-jangling threat; little wonder that, only this week, the hardline Israeli Foreign Minister dismissed any hopes of immediate peace in the Middle East. Elsewhere, American efforts have failed to stop the Darfur crisis dragging on in Sudan, while Sri Lanka is in lockdown and Somalia in anarchy.

With luck, Obama's patient and conciliatory approach will solve some of these intractable puzzles. But after just nine months in office, this award is absurd, combining embarrassment for the US President with an insult to many more deserving candidates. Just look at last year's winner: the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, a man who spent three decades working for peace in Africa, Asia and Europe and could claim a significant role in resolving several long-lasting conflicts.

This year's reputed candidates included the Cluster Munition Coalition, which played a central part in getting nearly 100 countries to agree a treaty banning cluster bombs last year; Hu Jia, the imprisoned Chinese dissident, environmentalist and Aids activist; Morgan Tsvangirai, who has fought so courageously for democracy in Zimbabwe; and Greg Mortenson, an American mountaineer whose mission to combat terrorism with literacy began when he fell sick in Pakistan and decided to build a school to repay the kindness he was shown. Any one of these would have been a more deserving winner.

Instead, the five judges chose Obama for his "vision" of a nuclear-free world. The vision thing is easy. Unfortunately, as the situation in Iran shows, it is rather harder to turn dreams into reality. He was also praised for his "efforts" to strengthen co-operation around the world. You can give school children awards for effort, but it does not really seem the correct barometer for something that is supposedly the world's most prestigious prize for peace.

It is also a very foolish award. This month, Obama faces an agonising decision that could define his presidency: whether to support his generals, and send another 40,000 young Americans to fight in Afghanistan, or side with doves led by his Vice-President and risk fewer troops by focusing on counter-insurgency. He is expected to side to some extent with the generals, propping up a feckless regime in the hope of imposing a semblance of order in one of the world's most chaotic places.

But what if he fails: will Afghanistan turn into Obama's Vietnam? This looks an increasing possibility. And might he end up tarnishing the lustre of this prize like Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Elihu Root, the American statesman whose policies in the Philippines led to half a million deaths at the turn of the 20th century?

It is, of course, easy to mock the idea of a peace prize created by an arms manufacturer. And there have been many debatable winners (although, fortunately, the nominations of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro were rejected). But more times than not, the prize has gone to the good guys. It is either the ultimate accolade for genuine heroes, such as Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel and Aung San Suu Kyi, or serves to highlight less well-known figures deserving the world's acclaim, such as the microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, or the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

President Obama was typically humble and eloquent in his response yesterday. But he should have refused the award, politely saying that he was flattered and, while appreciating the motivation, was as yet unworthy of such distinction. Instead, he is once again lauded for his symbolism and potential rather than his actual deeds. One day, he might be a worthy winner. But not today.