Obama says his Nobel Peace Prize is ‘a call to action’
President Obama, who has pledged to place diplomacy ahead of confrontation in world affairs, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a remarkable and controversial honor for a leader just nine months in office.
The award committee cited Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” and said that he had given the world “hope for a better future.”
The committee commended Obama’s push for nuclear disarmament, his outreach to the Muslim world and his turn from the unilateralism that guided George W. Bush, although the former president was not named.
Obama, as if acknowledging the unusual nature of the award, accepted it “as a call to action” rather than as a reward for past accomplishments.
Appearing briefly in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said the award is “a call to all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity.”
The announcement was unanticipated by the White House and quickly derided by Republicans.
The president, 48, was nominated for the prize last winter, after just a few weeks in office. Coming so early in his presidency, Friday’s announcement touched off a public debate about exactly what Obama had done to deserve the prize. Even Obama himself seemed flabbergasted at the news, which he received in a 6 a.m. wake-up call from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
“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,” said Obama.
He suggested that the prize had not always “been awarded just to honor specific achievements,” but also to lend some “momentum” to the cause of peace.
Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee who spoke to reporters said the prize was an early vote of confidence for Obama’s foreign policies.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who was awarded the prize in 1984, said that the honor “speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope.”
The timing of the announcement was awkward, coming as Obama considers an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. And for all of the prestige of being a Nobel laureate, it likely will not make it any easier to close divisions among Democrats over the war in Afghanistan, advance peace in the Middle East and respond to Iran’s nuclear threat.
“After the champagne bubbles dissipate, Obama will still be left with the tough job of turning cheers from the international bleachers into tangible progress on some of the world’s toughest problems,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former advisor to President Clinton who is now a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
Republicans wasted no time in criticizing the award with the partisan bluntness they have heaped on Obama’s health and economic policies.
“We’re laughing about it,” said Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “It just shows how the international left is so in love with this guy, and for no apparent reason except that he’s not George Bush.
“There’s literally nothing that he has done to earn the award,” he said. “There’s no accord of any kind -- no treaty. He has literally been in office for nine months and accomplished nothing in terms of peace. He hasn’t even withdrawn from Iraq.”
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a withering statement even before Obama himself spoke of the award.
“It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights,” he said. “One thing is certain -- President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”
The Democratic National Committee’s press office responded with its own partisan broadside, in a statement comparing GOP criticism to comments by leaders of Hamas and the Taliban.
“Whether it’s celebrating the nation’s loss of the Olympics, or attacking the recognition of American leadership today, Republicans time and again are proving that they’re putting politics ahead of patriotism,” said Hari Sevugan, a Democratic Party spokesman.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the award “really says that the United States has now restored its credibility with the rest of the world. People believe in him.”
In his Rose Garden appearance, Obama said his daughter Malia came in and told him, “ ‘Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize and it is [their dog] Bo’s birthday.’ ” His other daughter, Sasha, added, “ ‘Plus we have a three-day weekend coming up.’ ”
“It’s good to have kids to keep things in perspective,” Obama said.
The Nobel committee had in the past criticized 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.
After awarding the 2002 prize to former President Carter, the committee chairman said it should be considered a “kick in the leg” to the Bush administration’s war policies.
Obama reached out to the Muslim world in June with a speech in Cairo appealing for understanding between the West and the rest of the world. Recently he called on the General Assembly of the United Nations to commit all nations to eventual nuclear disarmament.
Obama also has renewed attempts to broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the president endorsing the “two-state” solution that his predecessor also had supported.
The five-member Nobel committee, which is elected by the Norwegian parliament, received a record 205 nominations for this year’s prize. The committee has three members elected by left-of-center parties and two right-of-center members. The vote was unanimous, according to the chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland.
The White House said Obama would donate the $1.4-million prize to charity, and that he plans to travel to Oslo for the Dec. 10 Nobel award ceremony.
Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- President Theodore Roosevelt was honored in 1906, President Wilson in 1919.
The names of nominators -- who come from a broad spectrum of university, government and legal institutions -- are kept secret for 50 years.
In his 1895 will, inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel directed that the prize 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.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Mark Z. Barabak and Geraldine Baum contributed to this report.