The XX Factor

The Counter-Counterintuitive Position: Of Course Obama Deserved the Prize!

I feel embarrassed for my fellow journalist class that it’s already become the counterintuitive position to say that our president deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. I woke up to the collective “Huh?” in my inbox: He hasn’t done anything yet. He’s a trophy collector . A prodigy who disappoints. But come on! Can’t the first African American president, who is working hard to reverse eight years of a destroyed American reputation, collect this essentially meaningless prize? Yasser Arafat won the thing for God’s sake. How important can it be?

Barack Obama did not win the prize, as Slate ’s John Dickerson argues this morning, because he gives good speeches. He won it because he has the genuine potential to end the stalemate that has existed between us and Europe, and us and the Middle East over the last eight years. His Cairo speech was the best step in that direction so far. Compared to that, the supposed snub in Copenhagen is meaningless. Who really cares about the Olympics? And you can’t argue both that the Olympic snub is important and the Peace Prize is a joke. They are both symbolic acts, of limited importance.

Most of what’s been said on this subject seems monumentally petty to me. Rush Limbaugh says he is being rewarded for “emasculating America.” This is the same logic that got us into Iraq. The essential argument is: Whatever the Europeans want, we do the opposite, because we are not sissies. Ann Althouse quotes a tweeter who says “they are handing him the Nobel peace Prize because he is not George Bush.” She means this as an insult. It seems perfectly logical to me, or at least in keeping with the logic of the prize, which is for the person who shall have done the best work to further fraternity of nations.

“Shall have done” is the problem, as Dickerson points out. Unlike the literature prize, which is for a lifetime of achievement, the peace prize comes in the middle of a crusade, and is meant to prod someone along. Sometimes-Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin-the crusade fails, or sputters, and the prize looks wrong in retrospect. At least the committee, often mocked for its obscurity, is taking a risk.

Of course, Obama should not turn down the prize, as Mickey Kaus argues. It’s not his fault that they awarded it to him exactly during the week when the honeymoon has officially been declared over, when health care reform is being picked apart, when even Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live are starting to pick him apart, when everyone is totally sick of the schoolkids sing happy songs to Obama routines. He should take it as encouragement, and keep up the good work.