When words are not enough

Henry Champ on Obama's peace dilemma

I usually wake up in the mornings to a National Public Radio newscast timed to go off at 7 a.m.    Often the first couple of stories are a bit fuzzy, as I struggle to the surface through the primordial haze that is my mind. But not that morning.

"The Nobel Committee has announced this morning they are awarding the Peace Prize to President Barack Obama."

For what, I remember thinking. And that first reaction was matched by a majority of North Americans, many of whom are supporters of the president.

What has he done to deserve this?

Back in October, when the Peace Prize was announced, I wrote a column suggesting that the president's first thought on hearing the news was whether he could give it back.

A Peace Prize installation in Oslo depicting American winners Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. (Associated Press)

Among other things, it is an award that has not always brought the best of luck to its many worthy recipients.

Place your bets

Obama's Peace Prize has faded away in the minds of most, except perhaps for a few Republicans who like to employ it to take shots at Obama for what they see as style over substance.

But it is about to come back into play as he accepts his award in Oslo later this week and that event is almost certain to revive the debate over America's internationalism all over again.

If the world community wants to "bet on the come" — as they say at the poker table, referring to the odds on the card to be drawn — so be it.

In the U.S., voters wanted practical evidence that Obama can lick some of the problems the country faces. And at the moment it must be said that he has neither passed nor failed at that bar.

While the president's job approval rating has slipped, it is still enough to win re-election.

The Henry prize

Personally, I am not a big fan of the Peace Prize. It does bring notoriety to worthy individuals and worthy causes. But most get forgotten quickly.

Today's column prize goes to anyone who can name seven winners in the past 20 years (without resorting to Google).

I was equally unimpressed when then PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel's then foreign minister Shimon Peres were included in 1994 award. Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was, however, a worthy third winner that year.

On Thursday, the president will be in Oslo making his acceptance speech just nine days after ordering a 30,000-strong troop increase to Afghanistan, escalating an unpopular war.

Since Obama has been in office, the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan has gone from 34,000 to over 100,000 men and women in less than a year.

When the Nobel committee announced this year's Peace Prize, it said it was for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples."

Troop increases in Afghanistan were not likely what the Norwegians had in mind, nor the fact that sandwiched in with the Nobel event is the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which is proceeding at a snail's pace if even that.

Now what?

On Thursday, the president will be paraded under torchlight through Oslo's streets, along with other gowned and tuxedoed guests, before tucking into a five-course meal.

Then comes the ceremony itself. Much of the world will watch to see how Obama handles this potentially embarrassing event, although not one of his planning.   Does he simply ignore the troop escalation and concentrate on subjects closer to the heart of the Nobel committee.

Does he respect the reward but suggest perhaps that he is without merit, maybe even naming others who did more to advance the cause of peace.

The Washington Post suggests the leadership of the Uighurs, the Chinese Muslims who are struggling with the Beijing government; or perhaps Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was killed in Teheran's streets while protesting against her government.

Her death is credited with focusing world attention on Iran's nuclear plans.

More prosaically, perhaps, the question for Thursday is whether Obama uses this speech to speak to his domestic audience, which is growing tired of international issues.

Or does he deliver a stemwinder on international co-operation?

The latter is what the Nobelists are clearly hoping for. But it would play out against the backdrop of the slow-moving Copenhagen conference as well as a White House decision just a few weeks ago that makes an international co-operation speech a bit tricky.

That was when the Obama administration, like its White House predecessors, refused to sign the international treaty to ban landmines, citing essentially a Pentagon concern that its war machine would be harmed.

When I asked if anyone could remember previous winners of the Nobel Peace Prize over the past 20 years, did anyone get the 1997 winner?

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its then leader Jody Williams.

I wonder if she will be seated at the head table?