Whatever Happened to His Nobel Prize?

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I’ve been asking my friends a question. It’s a question that should have occurred to me before, but it hit me rather suddenly a few days ago, during President Obama’s fulminations about what he was going to do to ISIS (“ISIL,” in his chronic though unexplained vocabulary). I couldn’t answer the question, so I began asking other people.

The question is: whatever happened to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize? I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody mention it?

I can only speculate about the last occasion when I heard of it. I imagine it was mentioned when Obama was destroying the government of Libya and replacing it with another one (and that turned out well, didn’t it?). But I don’t actually remember anybody bringing it up. I would also imagine that someone mentioned it when Obama was campaigning for reelection on the claim that he had killed Osama bin Laden. Again, however, I can’t specifically recall anyone drawing attention to the Nobel Prize. The Prize for Peace, remember.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one.

Then came the Drone Wars, with more brags from Obama about liquidating his enemies. Then his first attempt at invading Syria, with all those statements about drawing lines in the sand. I can’t remember any discussion, at the time, of the peculiar moral and intellectual evolution experienced by the Nobel laureate. Then came . . .

You get the picture. I can’t identify anyone who discussed that issue, ever. Of course, there must have been someone who did. I can’t read everything.

So when we got to Obama’s ISIS bombing campaign, I started asking other people. Nobody could remember any references, printed or televised, to a Nobel Prize for Peace. A few said they hoped that meant it was all a bad dream — Obama, the prize, everything. A few wanted to debate what Obama should have done about the prize in the first place. Some thought he should have refused it, saying he wanted to do something to deserve the honor, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to do as yet; or saying that as the president of a country that often needs to protect itself by engaging in military force, he would be hypocritical if he accepted a prize for Peace. I’d favor the first option, myself. I think it would have been the best public relations move a president ever made. But what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to Obama.

Anyway, since my friends couldn’t remember any references to the irony of Obama the peace-prize man, I started monitoring my TV more closely. I have yet to encounter the faintest allusion to Obama’s Nobel Prize. Indeed, everyone seems to be studiously avoiding it. To specify just one example: Peter Baker, a big guy at the New York Times, prattling to CNN on Sept. 29. The subject was promising for a Peace Prize mention: Baker had been invited to discuss the president’s inability to describe his actions regarding ISIS as warfare, not just “being in a war environment” and so on. So now, I thought, Baker will certainly mention the Prize. Now he’ll have to mention the Prize. But no. He dished out the usual statements about Obama’s wanting to be “a peace president,” as his interviewer said, but he never even got close to a Nobel Prize.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one. I also hope that Obama is becoming irrelevant. But I’m afraid that what is now irrelevant is the human memory.

For memory’s sake, therefore, I wish to specify, for the record, that according to the Nobel Prize website, “the Nobel Peace Prize 2009 was awarded to Barack H. Obama ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’"

Well, that’s all right. They gave him the prize about one second after he became president. How did they know what would happen afterward?




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Iran: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness

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On June 14 Iran held a presidential election. Emerging as the winner was Hassan Rowhani, a cleric of relatively moderate views. Rowhani took over 50% of the vote in a six-candidate field, thus avoiding a runoff. Over 70% of the electorate turned out to vote, and large crowds filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to celebrate the election result.

By all accounts the election was free and fair, without the manipulation and fraud that marked the 2009 contest. Of course, the candidates for president were selected, or given permission to run, by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran is by Middle Eastern standards a functioning democracy. And Iranians are more pro-Western than any other people in the Islamic world, except perhaps the Turks.

The Iranian people have, through their votes, expressed a desire to re-engage with the West, and particularly the United States. This is hardly surprising, given the economic suffering caused by the sanctions under which Iran has been living since 2006. Rowhani, while ruling out direct talks with the US for the moment, appears to want some kind of deal on the nuclear issue that has plagued US-Iranian relations for more than a decade. He was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during the presidency of another moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami and Rowhani were responsible for Iran’s voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment in 2004, a concession that brought no meaningful response from the US and its European allies. As a result, the hardliners in Tehran have been in the saddle since the Khatami presidency ended in 2005.

Iran will never agree to end uranium enrichment completely. Indeed, it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, in the present environment Iran may be willing to limit enrichment to less than 20% (at 20% enrichment uranium can be converted to weapons-grade material relatively quickly), and allow meaningful international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Given that President Obama has categorically ruled out containment as a response to a nuclear Iran, this option seems to be the only one other than war available to us. War would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the US.

The US has been given something very rare in international relations — a second chance. During the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005, the US failed to seize opportunities for an American-Iranian détente. The Clinton administration was too timid; the Bush administration had no interest in improved relations. Given the importance of the Persian Gulf region, and Iran’s status as a regional actor, every effort must be made to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic. Rowhani’s decisive victory has given him weight to counterbalance the hardliners in Tehran. By reaching out to him we can perhaps tip the scales in favor of peace.




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Nobels Oblige

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I don’t know who serves on the committee that awards Nobel Prizes, but I can’t help thinking they’re not very different from the guys on committees in civic organizations all over the planet, the do-gooders who get together for lunch one Wednesday a month to gossip and tell faintly bawdy stories and, Oh yeah, does anybody on the Peace subcommittee have any thoughts about who gets this year’s prize?

I’ve been on committees, and there’s usually somebody who became infected by a big insight on the way over. In the case of the Peace Prize subcommittee, the insight was probably something along the lines of, “You know, I’ve been thinking. There hasn’t been a war in Europe for a long time. We should encourage that kind of behavior. What if we give the Peace Prize to the whole continent?”

Then somebody would have pointed out that, “Well, there was that affair in Bosnia.”

“The European Union, then. Bosnia isn’t part of the EU. There haven’t been any wars in the European Union.”

“But there’s only been a European Union for 19 years. There’s no way it could have kept the peace all the way back to 1945.”

“Wasn’t there something before that? Some kind of iron and coal deal between France and Germany in the Fifties? Maybe that’s the reason we haven’t had a war.”

“It was the European Coal and Steel Community.”

“The arms manufacturers, then. Maybe we could give the . . .”

“You’re telling us we should give the prize to an arms manufacturer?”

“Why not an arms manufacturer? Alfred Nobel made his fortune selling dynamite.”

“Now you’re saying Alfred Nobel was an arms manufacturer?”

“Just saying.”

“An arms manufacturer would be a bold stroke, I’ll give you that.”

“We should try something new this time around. I don’t think we’ve given the prize to arms manufacturers before. Here, let me check the list. Krupps is available. Nobody’s awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Krupps of Essen.”

“You think the rest of the world would stand for it?”

“I think the rest of the world stood and applauded when we gave the prize to Barack Obama for . . . does anybody remember what we gave it to President Obama for?”

“For not being George Bush?”

“And for having an African father.”

“But Krupps of Essen? That’s a different kettle of pickled herring. Surely . . .

“That’s the beauty of the thing. We could give it to the European Union and not have to say anything about Krupps.”

And that was that. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU was just the ticket to encourage Europeans to keep on not murdering each other. And the cent-or-two in prize money they all got out of the deal would create real, tangible benefits for good behavior.

Now, I don’t want to come down too hard on guys who donate their time to good causes, but the whole process seems a bit slapdash to me. I mean, there’s no denying the subcommittee was onto something. A clam would have known that entire European countries going 67 years without invading one another is not only a big deal, it’s a big, historically unprecedented deal that hadn’t happened on the continent since, well, since before the invention of invading. That kind of behavior deserves recognition, and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is just about as recognized as anybody gets in this life. I just think the subcommittee’s aim was bad when they picked the EU to honor.

It was the same sloppy thinking that led them to look at the results of the 2008 American elections and decide to encourage our good behavior. Then, instead picking the American voters, or the constitutional system that allowed us to dump Jim Crow and George W. both, the subcommittee fixated on the beneficiary and handed the prize to President Obama.

As worthy as their intentions were, it doesn’t take much to know that it wasn’t the EU that kept Europe out of war. It wasn’t Europeans at all. If peace had been up to Europeans the Eiffel Tower would have been melted down for cannon years ago.

It was us who kept them from exterminating each other. For two-thirds of a century Italy hasn’t attacked Austria. Spain hasn’t gone to war against Holland. Greece hasn’t had a final smackdown with Turkey, and none of the other possible permutations of the way European governments find to kill each others’ citizens have taken place because we wouldn’t let them. And for a really good reason.

It wasn’t just to keep the Reds out that we didn’t bring home all of our troops after the Second World War. Having already sent two generations of Americans to die saving Europeans from each other, we didn’t want to do it a third time and we stayed over there and sat on them and made sure they didn’t start shooting again. For decades we even drafted otherwise decent young men and forced them to go to Europe to do the sitting. If our guys had wound up in the Balkans after WWII, Bosnia wouldn’t have gone to war, either.

Had the members of the Nobel subcommittee thought it through, they would have given this year’s Peace Prize to the ones who deserved it . . . not to the beneficiaries of the peace Europeans enjoy, but to those responsible for the peace: the American military. Besides, America doesn’t have anywhere near as many soldiers as they have people in the EU and the prize money would have gone a lot farther.




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Foreign Aid

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War and Peace

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



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