Obama says Nobel Peace Prize is ‘a call to action’

President Obama, who has pledged to place diplomacy ahead of confrontation and reached out to a skeptical world with offers of mutual understanding, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace today for what the Nobel committee called “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

“I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century,” Obama said in a White House Rose Garden appearance. “This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity.”

Professing humility and surprise in the awarding of the prize, the president said, “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership. . . .

“To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize,” Obama said, suggesting that the prize has not always “been awarded just to honor specific achievements,” but also to lend some momentum to the cause of peace. [FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article left out the word “common” in Obama’s quote and incorrectly quoted him as saying “a recognition of American leadership” instead of “an affirmation of American leadership.”]

The White House announced this afternoon that Obama has decided to give the approximately $1.4 million that comes with the prize to charity, though no decision had been made on which charity or charities.

The president plans to travel to the Nobel Prize award ceremony, the White House said. The prize will be awarded at Oslo City Hall in Norway on Dec. 10.

Obama is only the third sitting U.S. president to win the Nobel Prize for Peace -- President Theodore Roosevelt won the award in 1906, President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

The president was nominated for the prize after just weeks in office, with the award after less than nine months into the president’s term a sign that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is recognizing aspirations for peace over achievements.

The committee hailed the president’s creation of “a new climate in international politics.”

Ironically, the award arrives at a time when Obama is weighing the recommendation of the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops in a war now 8 years old. At the same time, the president, who campaigned with a promise to withdraw American forces from Iraq, is in the process of drawing down forces there, planning to pull out combat forces by next year and all troops by 2011.

As he left a sun-splashed Rose Garden this morning in celebration of the prize, the president was headed to another in a series of meetings with top-ranking military leaders and national security advisors, as Obama prepares for a long-awaited decision about the way forward in Afghanistan.

“We have to confront the world as we know it today,” the president said in the Rose Garden. “I am the commander in chief of a country that is responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary who directly [threatens] the American people and our allies.”

The prize recognizes the voiced objectives of a president who campaigned with promises to reengage the U.S. in world affairs and has personally reached out to erstwhile adversaries.

“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,” Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, said. “In the past year, Obama has been a key person for important initiatives in the U.N. for nuclear disarmament and to set a completely new agenda for the Muslim world and East-West relations.”

The committee was endorsing the American president’s “appeal that ‘Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges,’ ” he said.

Yet Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was quick to criticize the president’s prize.

“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ ” Steele said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights.”

Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who called the prize another “embarrassment” for Obama after the International Olympic Committee’s rejection of Chicago for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, suggested that Obama will be hard-pressed to deploy more troops to Afghanistan.

“This actually makes total sense when you look at who these Nobel people are, these elite Norwegians, Europeans,” Limbaugh said in his daily radio commentary. “This is a greater embarrassment than losing the Olympics bid was. . . .

“The elites of the world are urging him, ‘a man of peace,’ to not do the surge in Afghanistan,” Limbaugh said. “They are urging him not to take on Iran. . . . That’s what this is really all about. How can he now send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan?”

Accolades flowed from the president’s allies.

“I’m delighted at this recognition of President Obama’s work to strengthen international cooperation,” sad Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It validates the president’s approach to tough transnational challenges such as global warming and the spread of nuclear arms. And it celebrates his steady efforts to improve America’s standing around the world.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised Obama’s politics of “hope.”

“By ushering in a period of optimism in American politics, President Obama has become a great source of pride and inspiration for many Americans,” Reid said, commending Obama for “his dedication to a new type of politics based on hope instead of fear. I am confident that the president will work to continue to live up the ideals of this award throughout his term in office.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman David Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said, “It’s a stunning announcement, and it reflects well on America’s ideals and the world’s yearning for American leadership.

“Little is possible without leadership,” Leahy said. “No one can force other nations to follow, but President Obama is reintroducing America to the rest of the world, and people of goodwill everywhere do have hope about working together for progress on some of the world’s most daunting and dangerous problems.”

Obama was awakened early this morning with news of the prize in a call from his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. The president later said, “This is not how I expected to wake up this morning. [His daughter] Malia walked in and said, ‘Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize and it is [their dog] Bo’s birthday, and then [daughter] Sasha added, ‘Plus we have a three-day weekend coming up.’ It’s good to have kids to keep things in perspective.”

The Nobel committee had criticized Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, for engaging in largely unilateral military action in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With the backing of Congress, Bush quickly invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, and in spring of 2003 launched a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq intent on removing Saddam Hussein from power.

After awarding the 2002 prize to former President Jimmy Carter, the committee’s chairman said it should be considered a “kick in the leg” to the Bush administration’s war policies.

More recently, former Vice President Al Gore -- who had challenged Bush for election in 2000 -- won the prize for his work on climate change in 2007.

Since taking office, Obama has reached out to the Muslim world with a speech in Cairo in June appealing for understanding between the West and the rest of the world. He has traveled widely abroad delivering a similar message. And most recently he called on the General Assembly of the United Nations to commit all nations to eventual nuclear disarmament.

Calling for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” Obama said in his widely viewed Cairo address that “the cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”’

Last month, Obama told the U.N., “Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”

Obama also has committed his administration to renewed attempts to broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the president endorsing a “two-state” solution that his predecessor also had supported.

Today, in receiving word of the peace prize, Obama said, “We cannot tolerate a world in which nuclear weapons spread to more nations. . . . We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children. . . . We can’t allow the differences between people to define the way we see one another. . . . We can’t accept a world in which more people are denied opportunity and dignity.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said, “The exciting and important thing about this prize is that it’s given to someone . . . who has the power to contribute to peace.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela congratulated Obama on receiving the prize. And Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who was favored by some to win the prize, said Obama deserves it.

Tutu, retired Anglican archbishop for Cape Town, South Africa, said the award was imaginative and surprising.

“It is wonderful,” Tutu told reporters in Cape Town. “He has had a very significant impact. It has changed the temperature and almost everybody feels a little more hopeful about the world,” he said. “What wonderful recognition of someone who has already made such an impact on our planet with regards to the Muslim world, nuclear disarmament, climate change and, to some extent, the Middle East. He has reached out to the Arab world, including Iran, and North Korea.”

The Mandela Foundation released a statement saying, “We trust that this award will strengthen his commitment, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, to continue promoting peace and the eradication of poverty.”

The Nobel committee received a record 205 nominations for this year’s prize.

In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel required that the peace prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”

The prize is awarded by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian parliament. The committee has taken a wide interpretation of Nobel’s guidelines, expanding the prize beyond peace mediation to include efforts to combat poverty, disease and climate change.

Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in South Africa contributed this report. Times wire services were used in compiling it.