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Obama's Nobel may be a benefit and a burden

October 11, 2009|Dan Balz | Balz writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The Nobel Peace Prize committee validated President Obama's standing as an international superstar who has transformed America's image around the world. Obama may now spend the rest of his administration trying to turn the lofty ideals that brought him the prize into concrete results on the many intractable problems still before him.

From every direction there was surprise that a president still in his first year in office with no major accomplishments internationally, save for the change in public opinion, would receive the prestigious award. In that sense, Obama may find this latest honor as much a burden as a benefit.

The announcement from Norway was a reminder that in his brief time on the national and international stage, Obama has been most successful at inspiring others and creating often-outsized expectations for what he can do. In the Rose Garden on Friday, he described himself as "surprised and deeply humbled," saying he did not deserve the award but would accept it as "a call to action."

The announcement proved to be as controversial as it was surprising. The breadth of reaction, from exuberant gratification in some quarters to scorn and dismissal in others, underscored the political divisions over the direction of Obama's policies and the sharply polarized impressions of his leadership -- to say nothing of how politicized the prize itself has become.

Mohamed Elbaradei, the director-general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, said he could not think of anyone "more deserving of this honor." Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that it was an attempt by elites in the world to encourage Obama "to emasculate the United States."

Obama has won international acclaim for attempting to chart a course that breaks dramatically with that of former President George W. Bush, and there was little doubt among those on the right and left that the Nobel committee must have considered that as a major factor in its decision.

With his call for collective diplomacy and a humbler America, Obama has drawn a rhetorical distinction between his style and the unilateral approach that marked a good portion of Bush's administration. As Obama put it at the United Nations last month, perceptions of Bush's approach and policies "fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism" that inhibited greater cooperation and support.

Those are the principles Obama says will guide him, but the rest of the world will still look to the United States for leadership. Obama's concrete actions ultimately will do more to determine whether the rest of the world comes along, and so far there has been only modest success there.

One question being asked Friday was whether the prize would help on that front. Another was whether the award, subtly or overtly, would influence the president as he weighs how to deal with dangerous problems in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.

William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton now at the Brookings Institution, called the Nobel a great honor but also a potential burden for Obama, in large part because it was given for ideals rather than accomplishments. "Not only will he be judged in the future against this exacting standard, but also it may complicate some decisions, such as the one he must soon make concerning Afghanistan," he said.

What happens, Galston asked, if the president accepts the recommendations of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more U.S. soldiers? Will Obama lose favor overseas for failing to live up to the ideals embodied in the peace prize? "While I hope that such considerations will not influence his decisions, they don't make his life any easier," Galston said.

White House officials would insist that Obama will make the decision about Afghanistan shorn of considerations about what the Nobel panel may represent. But the peace prize's aura could well be a reminder of the tradeoffs and contradictions inherent in charting a course toward the kind of world to which he aspires.

Many of Obama's goals enjoy wide support, such as preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with a two-state solution, taking action to combat global climate change, and -- the most ambitious goal of all -- the emergence of a world free of nuclear weapons (an aspiration enunciated two decades ago by Ronald Reagan).

But there is significant division over the means to those ends. For all the acclaim Obama has generated, domestically and internationally, conservatives argue that he has been too quick to apologize for past U.S. actions, too willing to talk with enemies without demanding something in return, too indecisive in the face of difficult choices.

Obama hasn't had enough time to prove his critics wrong or to fulfill the expectations of his admirers, which is why even among his supporters there was surprise and even shock on Friday, a belief that the award was premature, a disservice and a potential liability.

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst at Brookings, said he faults the Nobel committee, not Obama, for a decision that cheapens the prize, though he was quick to say the factors cited in the award are laudable.

He added, "I don't think it helps him at all. He himself has seen the need this year to pivot from being an international pop star-like figure to establishing a more solid and pragmatic footing in foreign policy, and the award therefore actually risks setting the clock back a bit."

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