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Controversy is no stranger to Nobel Peace Prize

by Hiroaki Sato

Earlier this month, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award its annual Peace Prize to three African women — two Liberians and one Yemeni — Time magazine published online, on the same day, a list of the top 10 among “the most controversial moments in the 110-year history of the prize,” giving the pride of place to U.S. President Barack Obama. That has led me to revisit the issue (“Standing army still the prize peace-breaker,” Oct. 24, 2009).

To begin with an admission, yes, I was among those deeply moved when Obama was elected president of the United States. After all, this is a country still haunted by the slavery it had maintained far too long and the blatantly discriminatory practices introduced and tolerated after abolishing it constitutionally.

And yes, I knew “change” is the staple in U.S. election sloganeering that does not mean much. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton called for it but he fell flat on his face in his first attempt to effect it: to sweep aside the military’s discriminations against gays. The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy introduced as a compromise was repealed only last month — 18 years later.

Still, there was something magical about Obama’s background — the son born of an African father and American (white) mother. His birth had occurred long before the slogan “Black is beautiful” became a feature of America’s social change as the civil rights movement reached its peak. And, there was something seductive about Obama’s call for “change we can believe in” and the refrain, “Yes, we can!”

Yet, like many, Obama himself included, I was surprised by the Norwegian decision to give Obama the Peace Prize and even more surprised by his acceptance of it. He had done so little for peace! On the contrary, the wars his predecessor had started were getting worse on his watch.

Here are a few passages from an article in the spring of 2009, a few months after Obama became president.

“Every military commander has echoed the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Gates, the current wars ‘cannot be won militarily.’ The solution, they say, is political and will take a massive civilian and diplomatic effort.”

Nonetheless, “in April alone the U.S. military reportedly dropped 438 bombs in Afghanistan. Munitions dropped in Afghanistan have risen 1,100 percent.”

“The most recent U.S. bombardment of targets in eastern Afghanistan killed approximately 150 civilians huddled in homes trying to escape the torrent.” ‘The Taliban were using civilians as human shields,’ was the military’s excuse.”

When the Nanjing Massacre came to light after World War II, wasn’t one of the “excuses” the Japanese military proffered was that they couldn’t tell the differences between Chinese soldiers and civilians because soldiers mingled with civilians? Is that any different from the argument so common now of the enemy using civilians as “human shields?”

The writer of the article, Patricia DeGennaro, went on to report, “and the news media supported this [excuse] by questioning how many women and children were slain in the tragedy” — as if people can be valued or devalued by sex and growth stage (“Afghanistan: Casualties of War — Is it Worth it?” The Huffington Post, May 12, 2009).

Obama then set up a highly staged, drawn-out war council on Afghanistan, which he had called “a war of necessity.” In it he was obviously a feeble referee, rather than a political leader or, to use the overused moniker, commander-in-chief.

The upshot: Just about a week before he went to Oslo to accept the Peace Prize in December, Obama had announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, making a total of 100,000.

That number of soldiers to be added was preordained, as it were. “The people don’t want 30,000 more troops, but instead 30,000 engineers, teachers and scientists,” Roshanak Wardak had said back in June, during a panel discussion in the “America’s Future Now” Conference held in Washington (“Afghans need peace, not war,” People’s World, June 6, 2009).

Wardak, a member of the Afghan Parliament, is a gynecologist who “spent many years working with Afghan women in refugee camps in neighbor Pakistan” (“Experts from Afghanistan Urge Members of Congress to Rethink the War,” The Huffington Post, June 1, 2009).

Afghan people’s wishes be damned.

Looking at Time’s list of top 10 “most controversial” Nobel Prize winners, you see seven were for peace. In other words, to be cited for peace is more likely to provoke strong objections. Part of the reason may be a great dose of wishful thinking on the part of the Nobel committee. That certainly was the case with Obama.

As pointed out at the time, the nominations for the 2009 Peace Prize had started in September 2008, two months before Obama was elected U.S. president, and the decision had been made only 12 days after he assumed the presidency. There were 172 nominees.

Some decisions evidently make no sense. Time’s list of seven necessarily includes the 1973 Peace Prize recipient Henry Kissinger, and the brief description provided includes the great polymath — songwriter, satirist, mathematician — Tom Lehrer’s quip: the award “made political satire obsolete.”

And that reminds me. Time’s list doesn’t include Eisaku Sato, Japan’s prime minister from 1964 to 1972, but he was the 1974 recipient. His pick for the award later led manga artist Fujio Akatsuka to make one of his famous characters exclaim, “Since Eisaku Sato won the Nobel Peace Prize, I’ve been unable to believe in anything at all.”

As everyone in Japan and Asia knew, Sato was the fervent supporter of the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. He had also had blatantly lied about Japan’s non-nuclear policy. It was for the latter that he shared the prize with Seán MacBride, a strong advocate of human rights. Awarding Sato with the Peace Prize may not have been as delusional as Sato decorating U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the incinerator of a great many Japanese cities, with Japan’s highest honor, but it came close.

Shouldn’t Sato have declined the prize? After all, a year earlier, Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnam diplomat who shared the prize with Kissinger, had declined it. He could not be honored with the destroyer of his country, he said.

But you could not expect such a sense of justice and propriety from Sato. As the Nobel Prize Committee ruefully admitted in its retrospective almost three decades later, “The Nobel Peace Prize 1901-2000,” Sato was a “rather conventional politician.”

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator who lives in New York.