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?

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick