Rupert Cornwell: The real world has little time for prizes

Was this an attempt to boost Obama’s prestige as he takes on global problems?

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If Henry Kissinger's Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 was said to signify the death of satire, the one that's been awarded to Barack Obama may go down as the triumph of naivety. Henry the Great had indeed cosied up to vile regimes in Latin America and ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia. But he was also the arch exponent of realpolitik, who extricated the US from a futile war. That is why he was awarded the prize.

This one has gone to an American president in office for less than nine months. Yes, Obama, perhaps more than any president in history, has roused hopes of a new beginning. But nothing leaves a more bitter taste than hope unfulfilled, and therein lies the danger of this premature award.

Yes, he's made those fancy speeches – in Berlin in summer 2008 during his pre-election European victory lap, his inaugural address in January, the ones to the Muslim world in April, to the UN General Assembly last month. Not only can Obama dissect and explain a complicated problem as few others, but he's inspirational as well. But, as they say in American politics, where's the beef?

To be sure, George W Bush's misbegotten war in Iraq is being wound down. But in the Middle East, Obama's exhortations and strictures to Israelis and Palestinians have this far achieved precisely nothing. Even as he lays out a stirring vision of a nuclear-free world, Iran accelerates its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity that might easily ignite a new war in the region. It's all but certain that Obama will miss his deadline of next January for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Nor will honeyed presidential words, the White House already concedes, persuade Congress to arm US delegates to December's climate change conference in Copenhagen with a piece of legislation to prove their good intentions.

Then there's Afghanistan. The man praised yesterday for giving the world "the hope of a better future" is considering escalating a conflict in which America's involvement has now lasted as long as in Vietnam – and whose parallels with that failed war grow with every passing day. The difference is that Obama's America has even less chance of imposing its will on Afghanistan – and if it is to succeed there, on the larger, more treacherous stage of nuclear-armed Pakistan next door – than presidents Johnson and Nixon had of victory in South-east Asia.

He may have sown the seeds of hope. But then again, so in his time did Jimmy Carter, a president to whom people these days are starting to liken Obama: another good and extremely intelligent man, who promised much when he came to office in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, but whose single term ended in failure and disappointment. Seven years ago, Carter did win the Nobel Peace Prize. But that was a lifetime achievement award, more in recognition of 20 years of post-presidential toil in the world's most thankless hot spots than for anything he achieved in office.

So why did the Norwegian committee act as it did yesterday? Perhaps, you might frivolously say, to show even-handedness. Only last Friday, after all, Obama was returning from Copenhagen with his tail between his legs. He had just suffered the biggest rejection of his presidency as his adopted city of Chicago, for which he had lobbied in person, saw its 2016 Olympics bid tossed out in the very first round of voting. The collective gasp of surprise at Obama's victory yesterday was as audible as at his failure seven days earlier. Scandinavia, the Norwegians were keen to prove, not only taketh away. It also giveth.

You could also argue that this was a political move by the committee – a calculated attempt to boost Obama's prestige as he tries to resolve those global problems listed above. And maybe it will. But it's hard, for instance, to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turning all sweet and reasonable, forswearing Iran's nuclear ambitions just because the fellow across the table has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most likely, though, it was a very human mixture of idealism and spite to which even right-thinking Scandinavians also are not immune. The idealism reflects a perception of Obama as a new embodiment of America at its best, the last hope of humanity, guided by high and universal ideals, determined and decisive, using its immense power in concert with others to build a better world. As such, Obama's prize is also a final, gratuitous shot at George W Bush (remember him?), who for Scandinavia and far beyond was embodiment of America at its worst.

But the real world has little time either for comforting myth, or pointless score settling. Obama's Nobel Prize will not weigh heavily in the deliberations over Afghanistan, the first acid test of his presidential mettle. The basic choice is simple: either to throw in more troops, spending more American blood and treasure on a war in which in any politically realistic time frame the US cannot succeed; or to wind things down, and focus on the terrorists, not the Taliban. Most probably, though, he will split the difference, sending more troops. They won't be enough to win, but they'll delay the inevitable final failure. But for the moment, we do not even know what America's goal is in the war. And to have a goal you must have a strategy. All the rest is tactics, which at best buy time.

Which brings us back to Henry Kissinger, nothing if not a strategist. He and Nixon came to recognise that America's power was not infinite, and decided their strategy would be to extricate the US from the war. It was messy, and took four years to achieve. Then the process was called "Vietnamisation". Call it "Afghanistanisation" or whatever, but that is the path Obama should take now. If he did, he would really earn this premature Nobel Peace Prize.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

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