international analysis and commentary

Obama and the Perils of the Prize

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Normally, I visit Washington every other month to see longtime friends who have risen in the foreign policy establishment, getting a real feel for the goings on in what is still the most important capital in the world. For I have learned from spending half my working career abroad that the planet is seen very differently inside the beltway than from outside.

Never was this more true than during my most recent trip. In 20 intensive meetings with high-level foreign policy figures both for and against the President over the period of a week, I was struck by their focus on Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize – to the exclusion of talking about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even missile defense – and their near universal view that the whole episode was a real calamity for the administration.

On face value this seems a case of fiddling while Rome burns. With the Iran crisis entering a new, more dangerous phase, with the Eastern Europeans outraged over Obama’s about-face on missile defense, with next steps in Afghanistan the most momentous of the conflict, why in the world would anyone be obsessing about a symbolic prize given away by a small coterie of Norwegian intellectuals? But I have come to the conclusion that, perhaps just this once, Washington elites are right to focus on what is a far from trivial matter. Beneath the surface of things, the premature Peace Prize may prove the punch line to a worrying narrative firmly settling around the Obama White House: he is so much less than he seems.

Even those working hand-in-glove with the President are privately aghast at the award. It does the White House little political good at home to conjure the image of a half dozen European intellectuals – complete with small, rectangular glasses – bestowing on the President the most prestigious award in the world… based on his first ten days in office. Yes, that’s right. Nominations were due in for the prize after Obama had been in office all of a week and a half. This does not pass the laugh test. While others, such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, wrongly went to jail (in Mandela’s case for decades) for their beliefs, the anointed one again seems to have walked through the raindrops, avoiding the messy need to make gigantic sacrifices to mirror the gigantic accomplishments the prize is supposed to reward.

This is the narrative John McCain used to such great effect during the campaign, the one punch he truly landed on the fantastic Obama campaign team: “Yes, the Senator is a remarkably talented, decent man, worthy of consideration for the most important job in the world – in about a decade or so. He promises much, as yet he has accomplished little.” The otherworldly decision of the Nobel Committee did nothing to dispel this lingering suspicion.

Secondly, when I proposed a counter-narrative to the Obama loyalists – that he refuse the prize, thereby showing just how special a man he is – they grudgingly admitted that might have been a better decision.

Napoleon, watching the final days of the Washington administration from afar, commented wonderingly that if the father of his country deliberately gave up power after two terms as president he would prove to be the greatest man in the world. Sometimes self-abnegation is the best foreign policy tool one can possess. If Obama had not accepted the prize, what could the Republicans, let alone America’s enemies, have said in response? His not doing so merely increases the suspicions of well-wishers like myself (I am a Republican who happily voted for the man) that, at some level, the President believes far too much of his own press.

Which leads me to the great danger – beyond the immediate political embarrassment – in all this. There is little sign yet that Obama’s foreign policy is really working. Increased pressure on the Israelis has not led to movement on the Middle East peace process, just as the increased outreach to the Palestinians and the Arab world has not led to their cobbling together the necessary unified negotiating position. Throwing the Russians a bone over missile defense has yet to bear fruit with Moscow toughening its position towards Iran. Engagement with the Islamic Republic itself does not seem to have lessened the government’s drive toward acquiring nukes. Afghanistan, in General McChrystal’s assessment, remains a mess, with Obama likely to pursue the middle course of increasing troop levels by far less than the generals and hawks would like, and far more than skeptics of the war, such as myself, think prudent. This middle way was the very road that led another domestically ambitious president, Lyndon Johnson, to utter ruin in Vietnam.

For popularity only truly counts in international relations if it is used as part of a strategy to concretely attain foreign policy objectives. And, for all the undoubted sparkle of the Obama White House, the record is pretty thin on this score. If this logjam of problems is not broken in relatively swift order, the Obama historical narrative could well be indelibly set, with the faux peace prize serving as an opening statement. The tale is as old as the Greeks and is hauntingly recurrent for anyone who studies history. A talented young man flew too near the sun, and in his hubris, fell to earth, having failed to redeem his many talents. That’s the serious danger of this silly award; that it, coupled with all-too-real foreign policy perils, could prove this incredibly gifted man’s undoing.