Saturday, October 10, 2009

Quote of the Day (Lech Walesa, on the Most Recent Nobel Peace Prize Winner)

"So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is only beginning to act."—Lech Walesa, former President of Poland—and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner—on the latest Peace Prize laureate, President Barack Obama, quoted in Karl Ritter and Matt Moore, “Obama Named Winner of Nobel Peace Prize,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 10, 2009

Years ago, as he struggled to lead an against-all-odds revolution against the world’s greatest tyranny, Lech Walesa made one of those idiotic annual worst-dressed lists. Today, as you can see in the above quote, it turns out that the guy is as plain in speech as he is in apparel.

A far cry indeed from Barack Obama, as smooth a talker as he is a dresser. (I bet he was smiling a lot, the way he is in this picture, when he received the nice surprise about the Nobel.)

“Too early,” indeed. Next year, I propose naming Derek Jeter American League MVP in spring training. Only contemplating that possibility could begin to help one understand a Nobel awarded so quickly that it is, as Time columnist Joe Klein notes, “premature to the point of ridiculousness.”

The Nobel Peace Prize committee is adamant that nominations must be received at least eight months before the vote. This meant that Obama’s had to be in hand by February 1—twelve days after he’d been inaugurated President.

Think of that, people. This past winter, the administration was railing about how long it was taking Congress to approve Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. (Some might not be filled yet, for all we know!) You might remember the general tone—“Don’t blame us if nothing gets done around here!”

February 1 is just about the time that each succeeding President and his aides figure out the closest rest room to the Oval Office.

You might remember that this past winter was consumed with getting the stimulus package passed. As for health care: well, remember what Ulysses S. Grant wrote Lincoln about proposing to fight it out all along the line at Petersburg “if it takes all summer”? Well, he didn’t take the Confederate stronghold until the following April. That’s about how long it might take to pass some form of health care legislation, if President Obama’s lucky.

Presidential foreign policy? Oh, yeah—that speech in Egypt. What about Iraq? We’re still there. Afghanistan? Yup, and maybe we’ll have more soldiers there, too (making Obama perhaps the first laureate to win the prize while engaged in two wars). Mideast peace? Any movement from the Israelis or the Palestinians? Hello?

Here’s one of the interesting sentences from the committee’s citation: “The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.” How? What’s been agreed to?

More to the point, how does this differ from what every American President in the nuclear age—including, God help him (because, at this point, he botched things up so much that he sure can’t help himself), George W. Bush—has advocated?

President Obama has talked about arms reduction, nothing has happened, and he gets a prize; President Reagan began, then the first President Bush concluded, the negotiations that led to the START agreement—the first time since Hiroshima that an entire class of nuclear weapons was not merely capped, but cut. Guess what? No prize. (The fact that the Reagan and Bush were Republican I’m sure had nothing to do with their getting passed over.)

Take a look again at what Walesa said above. There’s no malice in it; it’s simply fact—more than you can say for how many Republicans are reacting. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, in typical blowhard fashion, did himself no favors by noting that the Nobel Prize committee has succeeded in “suicide-bombing” itself.

I don’t begrudge the resident this award. I voted for him; I’d do so again; I think he’s stabilized what could have been a catastrophic economy; and he looks pretty adult compared with people like Joe Wilson. After a summer of watching himself getting beaten up at all those town-hall meetings, I’m sure he can use the love, even if it comes from Scandinavia rather than Scranton.

Still, you can’t escape the feeling that this award, coming right now, is wrongheaded. No, Obama is unlikely to embarrass the Peace Prize Committee. (A group that could present the award to the likes of Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho and Yasser Arafat, while ignoring Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, is beyond embarrassment, anyway.)

Great speeches, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed, can move a nation; Obama’s are among the best; and I agree wholeheartedly with him that it’s far better to act in concert with other nations than to go it alone.

But the hard work of peace involves far more than oratory and right thinking. It involves even more than risk-taking—which it remains to be seen if the President has the stomach for.

No, peacemaking also involves flexibility and guile—which President Franklin Roosevelt (who didn’t win the award, even though he helped set up the United Nations) had in spades, and which Woodrow Wilson (who did win the prize, even though, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, he mismanaged the attempt to lead America into the League of Nations) famously lacked.

Senator John McCain might have said it best about the prize committee: “I think part of their decision-making was expectations. And I’m sure the President understands that he now has even more to live up to.”

Congratulations on your award, Mr. President. Like the rest of the world, I’m looking forward to your earning it.

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