The surprise awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama was Friday 10th, four days ago, so now there has been enough time to inventory some arguments/reactions to the Nobel Committee's action.
The Norwegians may not be alone in perhaps sincerely believing that for a black man to win the presidency of the United States is grounds for a Nobel in and of itself. This may be exactly right so far as I can see, although the Europeans do have an alarmingly cartoonish perception of American multiracial society.
People were quick to interpret the award as a slap at Bush, both those who applauded such a snub and those who resented it. I think that's maybe overestimating Bush's importance at this point, and I doubt that the Committee's intentions were primarily spiteful. Perhaps some were thinking of European anti-Americanism and the Atlantic community, so to the extent Bush is a factor in that he's a factor (there is probably some truth in all the views of the award).
Bush may also indirectly factor into the sense that the Europeans (and make no mistake, the Nobel reflects European opinion quite specifically if it reflects world opinion at all) see the US as an older, somewhat maladjusted colleague who needs lots of stroking; there is a palpable sense of hopefulness in the comments of European leaders that perhaps the Prize will inspire the Americans to do good instead of evil.
There is an interesting question as to what sort of function the Nobel Peace Prize is to serve. "What sort," as a precise function is indefinable. The Prize is predicated, for one thing, on the idea that the members of the committee themselves are enlightened promoters of peace. In practice this is unavoidably political. Why have such an award at all if no good is to be done with it? Thus the award has grown forward-looking, an act of potential influence as much as of retrospective appreciation.
This was the principal emphasis of Obama's own remarks Friday morning. "This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity," he said, thus directing public opinion to the Committee's intentions and beliefs as distinct from his own. It was a West Wing kind of moment as the White House managed to put together an effectively classy response to something very big that had been thrown over the transom before breakfast that morning.
As to that, politically it's an overall plus for Obama notwithstanding that it is an eyebrow-raiser. It really is extraordinary to see the Norwegian Nobel Committee throw its weight behind an American president. It's an illustration of how quickly the Europeans could rally back with the Americans if the Americans were doing good things. And there is no doubt that in the long run the Prize increases the individual's personal stature (Theodore Roosevelt, Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu).
But let's be cynics and assume that the Europeans are more interested in manipulation than seduction. The idea is that having the Prize makes it harder for Obama to exercise American military power. I think that's overstated. In fact one could make an argument that increasing his authority this way makes it easier for him to do what he likes, war or peace.
Specifically it has been said that the Committee wants to discourage an American attack on Iran. That could be given the provinciality of the Norwegians: they may be under the impression that an American attack on Iran remains possible (after 9/11 a Frenchman fulminated to me that the Americans might bomb targets in France).
The really pressing issue, and the one that just possibly (although I doubt it) swayed the Committee to throw the Prize to Obama at the last minute, is Afghanistan. I'm a Democratic Party loyalist and a big fan of Obama, but let's talk turkey for a minute here. The Democratic candidate always has a problem signaling toughness on foreign policy in campaigns against the Republicans. In 2008 Obama had the advantage that the Iraq war was extremely unpopular. He needed to run against that war but avoid coming across as too dovish. So he ran saying that he would prosecute the war in Afghanistan and go after Osama bin-Laden. Now his generals want 60,000 more troops.
The war in Afghanistan is a mistake. Al-Qaeda is operating in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Afghanistan cannot be pacified (ask the Russians, the British, the Mogols, Alexander...). The central government is, as Lincoln would say, "highly metaphysical," as most of the country is governed by regional chieftains. This is indeed a defining moment. The US needs to get out now. That, like health care reform, will only happen with real leadership from President Obama. He can only prove his strength by withdrawal. That's how he can earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Meanwhile I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he talks to Al Gore about getting the Prize. Inevitably Gore will tease him that he doesn't have an Oscar, but I think Obama has a plan: if he fixes the college football playoff season, and he's working on that right now, I think he would be a cinch for the Espy. Take that, Al Gore!