OSLO – Members of the Norwegian committee that gave Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize are strongly defending their choice against a storm of criticism that the award was premature and a potential liability for the U.S. president.
Asked to comment on the uproar following Friday’s announcement, four members of the five-seat panel told The Associated Press that they had expected the decision to generate both surprise and criticism.
Three of them rejected the notion that Obama hadn’t accomplished anything to deserve the award, while the fourth declined to answer that question. A fifth member didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
“We simply disagree that he has done nothing,” committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told the AP on Tuesday. “He got the prize for what he has done.”
Jagland singled out Obama’s efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.
“All these things have contributed to — I wouldn’t say a safer world — but a world with less tension,” Jagland said by phone from the French city of Strasbourg, where he was attending meetings in his other role as secretary-general of the Council of Europe.
He said most world leaders were positive about the award and that most of the criticism was coming from the media and from Obama’s political rivals.
“I take note of it. My response is only the judgment of the committee, which was unanimous,” he said, adding that the award to Obama followed the guidelines set forth by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, who established the Nobel Prizes in his 1895 will.
“Alfred Nobel wrote that the prize should go to the person who has contributed most to the development of peace in the previous year,” Jagland said. “Who has done more for that than Barack Obama?”
Aagot Valle, a left-wing Norwegian politician who joined the Nobel panel this year, also dismissed suggestions that the decision to award Obama was without merit.
“Don’t you think that comments like that patronize Obama? Where do these people come from?” Valle said by phone from the western coastal city of Bergen. “Well, of course, all arguments have to be considered seriously. I’m not afraid of a debate on the peace prize decision. That’s fine.”
In Friday’s announcement, the committee said giving Obama the peace prize could be seen as an early vote of confidence intended to build global support for the policies of his young administration.
The left-leaning committee whose members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama’s calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease U.S. conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.
However, the decision stunned even the most seasoned Nobel watchers. They hadn’t expected Obama, who took office barely two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline, to be seriously considered until at least next year.
The award drew heated derision from Obama’s political opponents in the Republican party, and was even questioned by some members of Obama’s own Democratic party, who wondered what the president had done to merit the $1.4 million honor.
Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said naming Obama showed “how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become.”
In a fundraising letter, Steele wrote that “the Democrats and their international leftist allies want America made subservient to the agenda of global redistribution and control. And truly patriotic Americans like you and our Republican Party are the only thing standing in their way.”
Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that Obama “has not done anything yet on the scale that would normally merit such an award.”
Even in Europe, where Obama is hugely popular, many editorials and pundits questioned what he had done to deserve the award.
“Scrap the Nobel Peace Prize,” foreign affairs commentator Bronwen Maddox wrote in The Times of London. “It’s an embarrassment and even an impediment to peace. President Obama, in letting the committee award it to him, has made himself look vain, a fool and dangerously lost in his own mystique.”
Yet Obama was humble in acknowledging the prize.
“Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations,” Obama said Friday in the White House Rose Garden. “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.”
Nobel Committee member Inger-Marie Ytterhorn noted that the president didn’t greet the news with joy.
“I looked at his face when he was on TV and confirmed that he would receive the prize and would come to Norway, and he didn’t look particularly happy,” she told AP.
Some of the most celebrated peace prize laureates include Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. The award has occasionally honored more controversial figures, like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Sometimes it raises the profile of peace workers or activists, such as Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala in 1992 or Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004.
“Whenever we award the peace prize, there is normally a big debate about it,” said Ytterhorn, a nine-year veteran of the award committee.
Asked whether there was a risk that the prize could backfire on Obama by raising expectations even higher and give ammunition to his critics, Ytterhorn said “it might hamper him,” because it could distract from domestic issues such as health care reform.
Jagland said he didn’t think the Nobel Peace Prize would hurt Obama domestically but added the committee did not take U.S. politics into consideration when making their decision.
“I’m not so familiar with American politics, and I don’t want to interfere with it, because this is a totally independent committee,” he said. “We should not look at internal politics.”
Kaci Kullman Five, a former Conservative Party parliamentarian and longtime Nobel committee member, said “we all expected that there would be a discussion” about awarding Obama. She declined further comment, deferring to the Nobel Peace Prize tradition of only having the committee chairman discuss prize selections publicly.
Valle, who left her seat in Parliament last week because of her Nobel panel appointment, said the criticism shouldn’t overshadow important issues raised by the prize.
“Of course I expected disagreement and debate on the prize, on giving him the prize,” she said. “But what I want now is that we seriously raise a discussion regarding nuclear disarmament.”