Sunday, October 18, 2009
Ian Williams: Change of course merits glittering prize
October 18, 2009 Tribune
A few hundred yards from where I write in upstate New York, an American Nobel Peace prizewinner was born. Not Barack Obama – after all, lots of Americans know he was born in Kenya and see the award as confirmation of his dangerous cosmopolitanism. No, it was the little-remembered John Raleigh Mott, born in the tiny Catskill town of Livingston Manor, who won the prize in 1946 for his work in establishing the YMCA internationally – for which the Village People surely owe him an anthem.
Mott’s prize was greeted as an honour for the whole country. He certainly deserved it more than Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Henry Kissinger – some of the sundry warmongers who have taken a bow in Oslo. Tom Lehrer gave up satire in the face of Kissinger’s medal, since he felt reality had overtaken his imagination at its fevered best.
All those Lutherans on the Nobel committee doubtless saw peace and Protestantism as the two sides of the same coin for Mott. Now their descendants see aspiration and achievement inextricably linked with their award to the President of the United States. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future”, said the Nobel Prize committee in giving the Peace Prize to the man who has been in the White House for less than a year.
I was glad they said “hope”, which is much more qualified than an “expectation”. In the US, those on the far right and the much smaller far left are united in their disparagement. The first can’t accept a “socialist” black President and so will attack whatever he does. The second are disappointed that the first black President did not wave a magic wand and instantaneously remake America and the world in the way they want.
The latter do have some points. Peace in Iraq and Afghanistan – two wars where a peace-committed American President has a direct hand on the trigger – seems some way off. Meanwhile, over the next year, it is the Middle East issue that is going to assay the gold content of Obama’s medal.
There is always room for nuance, of course. Even as it joined with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in forcing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to destroy whatever was left of his domestic credibility by deferring the Goldstone report resolution, condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza, to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the US administration did suggest that an Israeli investigation might be a good idea.
The problem is that Obama is dealing with people who don’t do nuance. They do small print, evasion and outright mendacity. The government in Israel does not want peace in any form that the rest of the world would recognise. Its constant reinterpretation of its longstanding pledge to freeze settlement building has not cost it grants, loan guarantees, security back up or anything else tangible. If Obama’s intention is, as some of us hope, to give Netanyahu enough rope to hang himself, it is past time for the President to start ostentatiously tying a knot for the Israeli leader. A threat to let the report go to the UN Security Council and to vote for it, or even abstain, would have been the perfect way for Obama to regain the global credibility and the “hope” for which the committee awarded him the prize. And it would have been a warning to Netanyahu that giving the finger to the US President risks it being bitten off.
So should Obama have been awarded the prize? And should he have accepted it? If he had refused the award, it would not have appeased the vociferous minority of Americans who are palpably not quite four quarters to the dollar. Those die-hard ultra-leftists denouncing him as a sell-out should stop and think of his very genuine achievement. We have a US administration that is prepared to work multilaterally, to use diplomacy with alleged enemies, to consider joint action to combat global warming, multilateral action to protect the poor in the developing nations, to work with the UN.
The committee was quite right to make the award. The SS United States was steaming straight for the iceberg under the insouciant captaincy of George W Bush – who was pretty much following the same course set by Ronald Reagan. While he might not have shared their opinions, even Bill Clinton scarcely challenged the neo-conservatives and neo-liberals during his term of office, so what Obama has done is terminate the disastrous piratical cruise of three disastrous decades in which the policies of the world’s last superpower were a faith-based farrago of falsities.
Obama has changed course and, even if he has not yet steered the ship of state to a safe haven, the relief is worth recognition from the rest of the world. There is more than hope that the prize recognises. And, if he gets the message that the rest of the world is with him, Obama may yet do what is necessary. Sticking it to Netanyahu is just the place to start.