Nobel honour stuns Obama – and the world

'This is not how I expected to wake up this morning', says a bemused President after unexpected decision

David Usborne,Us Editor
Saturday 10 October 2009 00:00 BST

A slightly sheepish President Barack Obama accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize as a "call to action" to the whole world to confront the global challenges before it, ranging from climate change to the threat of nuclear proliferation. But he made no attempt to conceal his astonishment at being selected.

Mr Obama used a Rose Garden appearance yesterday partly to deflect the attention from himself with humour and humility. "This is not how I expected to wake up this morning," he said, noting that his daughters were as quick to inform him it was also Bo the dog's birthday. Children, he said, "keep things in perspective".

The pre-dawn news from Oslo seemed to affirm the strong message of tolerance and dialogue that Mr Obama has proffered since before he was elected, but also threatens to heighten the burden of expectations on him. He indeed warned that much of what he aspires for will not be achieved in his presidency – or even his lifetime.

The announcement in the Norwegian capital drew gasps from assembled reporters. There were some expressions of shock, even disapproval, from a smattering of world figures, many sharing a theme that Mr Obama has won the prize too soon considering his goals have not borne much fruit.

But there was also a mild whiff of embarrassment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, conceded that his boss winning the Nobel Peace Prize had not been discussed once. David Axelrod, his political aide, had not even known that he had been nominated for it. When a reporter told Mr Axelrod that many people around the world were stunned, he replied: "As we are."

Mr Obama is only the third sitting US president to receive the peace prize, the other two being Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, two decades after leaving the White House. The 44th President was asleep when the call came from his spokesman Robert Gibbs. "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honoured by this prize," he said, "men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace".

He said he would collect the award in person at the ceremony in Oslo on 10 December and would donate the $1.4m prize money to charity.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Mr Obama for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", citing his fledgling push for nuclear disarmament and his outreach to the Muslim world. As world reaction came in, offering praise and scepticism, some noted that the deadline for nominations for the prize fell just 11 days after Mr Obama was inaugurated.

Lech Walesa, former leader of the Solidarity union, which toppled Communism in Poland, was among those voicing doubts. "So soon? This is too soon. He has not yet made a real input. He is proposing, he is starting, but he still has to do it all," Mr Walesa, who won the prize in 1983, told reporters.

The timing of the award was both providential and awkward for Mr Obama. It came just seven days after his global standing was dented by a failed trip to Copenhagen to try to win the 2016 Olympic Games for Chicago. But it also coincides with frantic foreign policy debate inside the Oval Office that may see him stepping up US troop numbers in the war in Afghanistan.

The reaction from the Taliban was acerbic."The Nobel Prize for peace? Obama should have won the 'Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians'," said a spokesman.

Nor was there a rush to applaud Mr Obama on the other side of the political aisle in Washington. Former members of the Bush team expressed their anger, among them former political aide Pete Welner, who called the prize "risible and worth mocking". Of the Nobel Committee, he added: "George W Bush can live a fulfilled life without being honoured by such an organisation," which "long ago ceased to be a serious entity".

In 2008, Mr Obama suffered a backlash domestically when he was received as a celebrity making speeches in Europe, and there are political risks attached to the Nobel endorsement. A hero stature abroad does not impress those in need at home.

The right-wing radio talk-jockey Rush Limbaugh wasted no time in attacking him for it. "Obama gives speeches trashing his own country and for that gets a prize, which is now worth as much as whatever prizes they are putting in Cracker Jacks these days," he scoffed.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party, issued a statement asking what Mr Obama has "actually accomplished" to deserve such an accolade. "It is unfortunate that the President's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights," he added. "One thing is certain, President Obama won't be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action."

But the honour could help Mr Obama in some forums, for example in Copenhagen this December, when world leaders will negotiate a climate warming treaty, or in his attempts in the coming weeks to corral Russia and China into taming the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. It also gives weight to his call, first made in Prague in April, to set the world on a course towards scrapping all nuclear weapons.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, recipient of the prize in 1984, said the decision "anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all. It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."

'I am humbled' Obama's acceptance speech

Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning. After I received the news, Malia walked in and said, "Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday!" And then Sasha added: "Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up." So it's good to have kids to keep things in perspective.

I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honoured by this prize – men and women who have inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build – a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that, throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honour specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action – a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st-century.

These challenges can't be met by any one leader or any one nation. And that's why my administration has worked to establish a new era of engagement in which all nations must take responsibility for the world we seek...

Some of the work confronting us will not be completed during my presidency. Some, like the elimination of nuclear weapons, may not be completed in my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it's recognised that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone. This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration – it's about the courageous efforts of people around the world.

And that's why this award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity – for the young woman who marches silently in the streets on behalf of her right to be heard even in the face of beatings and bullets; for the leader imprisoned in her own home because she refuses to abandon her commitment to democracy; for the soldier who sacrificed through tour after tour of duty on behalf of someone half a world away; and for all those men and women across the world who sacrifice their safety and their freedom and sometimes their lives for the cause of peace.

That has always been the cause of America. That's why the world has always looked to America. And that's why I believe America will continue to lead. Thank you very much.

A worthy winner? President's achievements abroad – and what lies ahead

Foreign policy achievements

*In a series of speeches around the world this spring, he burnished his message that the US would listen, lead and expect other nations to play their part.

*In Cairo, he asked for a new era of partnership between the US and Muslim nations and in Prague, he called for a nuclear-free world.

*Soon after, Washington and Moscow announced the start of talks to negotiate new treaties and further reduce nuclear warhead arsenals.

*As part of his promise to engage even with America's foes, Obama has begun direct talks with Iran on its nuclear programme and may soon do likewise with North Korea.

Still to do

*While Obama has poured political energy into re-starting the Middle East peace process through his envoy, George Mitchell, there has been no real progress to date.

*While it is likely that a deal will be cut with Russia on arms, the efforts to contain Iran and North Korea remain dicey.

*Although this White House has emphasised the need to reverse global warming, Obama will go to Copenhagen with his hands tied by an unco-operative Congress.

*Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay by 31 December, but may miss the deadline. He is drawing down troops in Iraq, but the Afghan war is looking to some like his Vietnam.

How the world sees it: A mixed reaction

*Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog: "I cannot think of anyone today more deserving... In less than a year, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself."

*Issam al-Khazraji, a day labourer in Baghdad: "He doesn't deserve this. All these problems – Iraq, Afghanistan – have not been solved... the man of 'change' hasn't changed anything yet."

*Obama's uncle, Said, in Kenya: "It is humbling for us as a family and we share in Barack's honour."

*Mikhail Gorbachev: "In these hard times people who are capable of taking responsibility, who have a vision, commitment and political will should be supported."

*Daily Beast blogger Peter Beinart: "Perhaps next they'll start giving Oscars not to the people who made the best movies of last year, but to the people who have the best chance of making the best movies next year."

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