Will the Nobel Help Obama Make Peace?

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Obama arrives in the Rose Garden of the White House in to speak about winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

President Barack Obama made time for a brief statement about his Nobel Peace Prize award on Friday, before heading in to a more pressing engagement — a high-powered White House strategy session on the next phase of his war in Afghanistan. That was just one indication that this year's peace prize was, as Obama himself put it, honoring aspiration rather than achievement.

President Obama, after all, is the Commander in Chief of American forces at war on two fronts. At least rhetorically, he has hasn't ruled out the option of taking military action against Iran's nuclear program. And while he has focused his energies on trying to kick start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, his entreaties haven't exactly been well received or borne any fruit. In all these foreign policy quandaries, not to mention North Korea's nuclear program, the President will face ugly choices, none of which will be ameliorated by the kudos of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Even when the last U.S. forces prepare to leave Iraq two years from now, President Obama won't claim to have ended that war — because the timetable and terms for U.S. withdrawal are prescribed in the Status of Forces Agreement concluded with Iraq by President George W. Bush weeks before leaving office. The only real choice facing Obama is whether to accelerate their departure. But the intra-Iraqi power struggles that have fueled the violence since the U.S. invasion are far from over, and the President could yet find himself walking away from a chaotic, deteriorating situation in Iraq — particularly if he fails to secure a regional strategic consensus with Iraq's neighbors, most notably Iran.

Far from ending the conflict in Afghanistan, President Obama came into office declaring it the "war of necessity", and immediately ordered a further 21,000 U.S. troops into the fight. Since then, the sheer scale of the challenge has become apparent to his Administration, particularly after his commander on the ground said a further 40,000 troops were needed to turn the situation around. Even if, as now seems possible, Obama seeks a political solution in Afghanistan that involves some sort of power-sharing deal with the Taliban, the implementation of that policy won't look much like peacemaking. The Taliban is currently winning the war, and persuading it to settle for anything less than total victory may require that the insurgents are bloodied to the point that they're disabused of the belief that they can win on the battlefield. So, under the most optimistic view, troops reporting to Obama will be spilling and shedding blood in Afghanistan for years to come.

On Iran, the President faces the daunting challenge of preventing the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons while avoiding a potentially catastrophic third U.S. war in a Muslim country within a single decade. But his approach has started to show more promise. At recent talks in Geneva, Tehran agreed to inspections of its previously secret enrichment plant under construction at Qom, as well as to a deal that would involve sending a substantial portion of its current stock of enriched uranium abroad for processing into harmless reactor-fuel rods. Still, while Iran may be open to taking steps to strengthen safeguards against it turning fissionable material into weapons, it remains unlikely to heed the Western demand to refrain from producing that material in the first place. Even in the best-case scenario of Iranian cooperation President Obama — who was hailed by the Nobel committee for his efforts at nuclear non-profileration — would likely face a choice about whether the U.S. and its allies could live with Iran having the means close at hand to create nuclear weapons.

Israel and the Arabs
And then there's the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, that hardy perennial that has inspired at least four previous Nobel Peace Prize awards. President Obama has little to show for making Mideast peace a foreign policy priority. Israel has bluntly rejected his demand for a complete freeze on settlement activity, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to negotiate over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees despite Obama having named these among the final-status issues on which he hopes to revive talks this month. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is prevaricating on talks, mindful of his growing marginalization in Palestinian political life. Abbas' popularity reached an all time low last week after he heeded U.S. pressure to withdraw Palestinian support for Security Council action on a U.N. report accusing Israel (and Hamas) of committing war crimes in Gaza last winter. Hamas, the militant organization that controls Gaza and is also the ruling party in the elected Palestinian legislature, has the power to effectively veto any peace agreement, but it is not being engaged in any process. (Along with the Taliban, Hamas was also one of the groups that had no kind words for Obama's winning the prize).

Although President Obama's Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, was in the region on Friday when the Peace Prize award was announced, it didn't help him cajole the parties back to the negotiating table. Far from anticipating an outbreak of peace, right now, in fact, the Middle East is bracing for the possibility that the escalation of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians — and the perceived failure of those Palestinian leaders aligned with U.S. peacemaking efforts — could ignite a new Palestinian intifada. And if a new confrontation does occur, it's a safe bet that there'll be voices on both sides blaming President Obama for having raised unrealistic expectations and prompting both sides to press their claims on the ground.

Russia and the Rest
There are some bright spots on the peacemaking horizon, of course. North Korea has agreed to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program, for example, although progress will depend more on China than on the President of the United States. And President Obama has made concrete progress on peacemaking in that traditional Cold War discipline of arms control with Russia. He's done that, in part, by jettisoning the post-Cold War hubris of his predecessors who acted as if Russia's strategic interests, and its nuclear arsenal, no longer mattered. Instead, the progress has come in traditional quid-pro-quo arrangements, most notably President Obama's decision to scrap an as-yet hypothetical missile shield on Russia's doorstep. Still, the world's two nuclear powers plan to negotiate reductions to their own arsenals, and to take the lead in strengthening global efforts against further proliferation.

The Nobel award has been universally acknowledged, not least by Obama himself, as premature. Some have argued — and the Committee's own statement suggested as much — that its purpose is to enhance the President's authority to press forward on his peace quest in the Middle East and beyond. In truth, however, the Nobel confers no recognized authority on the laureate, only attention — one gift President Obama most certainly does not need. But even if the award does nothing for Obama's ability to achieve his goals, some observers hope it will reinforce the President's will to press for peace. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, peacefully resolving the Iran nuclear standoff, and ensuring long-term stability in Iraq and Afghanistan all require that the President take massive political risks. In that sense, adding him preemptively to the pantheon of those who have already done so in the past may be a bid to boost the courage Obama will need to truly earn his place among them.