A gift from the ramparts of capital

by Alexander Cockburn

Of the four US presidents who have been given a NobelPrize — Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carterand Barack Obama — the one who’s shown the cleanest pairof heels when it comes to escaping the world’s guffaws for theabsurdity of the award is Jimmy Carter.It’s easy to throw mud at TR. The excuse for his prize,awarded in 1906, was his role in ending the Russo-Japanesewar. But what the committee of those worthy Norwegians wasactually saying was that when it comes to giving a US presidentthe Peace Prize, the bar has to be set awfully low. After all,TR was fresh from sponsorship of the Spanish-American warand ardent bloodletting in the Philippines.He accepted the prize not long after he’d displayed hisboundless compassion for humanity by sponsoring an exhibitionof Filipino “monkey men” in the 1904 St. Louis WorldFair as “the missing link” in the evolution of man from ape toAryan, and thus in sore need of assimilation, forcible if necessary,to the American Way. On receipt of the prize, Rooseveltpromptly began planning the dispatch of the Great White Fleet(16 Navy ships of the Atlantic Fleet) on a worldwide tour todisplay Uncle Sam’s imperial credentials.Wilson, the liberal imperialist with whom Obama bearssome marked affinities, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.The rationale was his effort to establish the League of Nations.His substantive achievement was to have brought America intothe carnage of World War I, and to have refined the languageand ideology of liberalinterventionism.Between TR andWilson, it’s hard to saywho was the more ferventracist. Probably Wilson.As governor of NewJersey, he was a fanatical proponent of the confinement andsterilization of “imbeciles,” a eugenic crusade that culminatedin the Immigration Act of 1924 barring Jews and other suspectgenetic material from entering the US. Much against their will,many of these excluded Jews made their way to Palestine.Others involuntarily stayed in place in Russia and EasternEurope and were murdered by the Nazis. Above all, Wilson atVersailles was the sponsor of ethnic nationalism, the motiveforce for the final solution. And they say Obama’s award hasbrought the Peace Prize into disrepute!Carter got his prize in 2002 as reward for conspicuous goodworks. But there again, the message of the Nobel committeewas take the rough with the smooth. It was Carter, after all,who amped up the new Cold War, got Argentine torturers totrain the Contras, who above all dragged the US into Afghanistan.It was in 1978 that a progressive secular government seizedpower in Afghanistan, decreeing universal educationfor women and banning child marriage.

By March 1979, Carterwas hatching plans with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China to armmujahideen and warlords in Afghanistan to overthrow the government andattempt to lure the Soviet Union into combat. In December 1979, afterrepeated requests from the government in Afghanistan, the Soviet Unionsent forces to fight against the rebellion by the fundamentalists. TheCIA launched the most expensive operation in its history to train andequip these fundamentalists and allied warlords.

TheNobel Peace Prize committee loves paradox, which is why I tend tobelieve that it toyed with the idea of giving Hitler the award in 1939,before the Führer’s sponsor withdrew the name. But it remained adamantabout denying the prize to another nominee in 1939 — Mahatma Gandhi —as it had done in 1937 and would again in 1947 and 1948. When it cameto the man Winston Churchill described as a “half-naked fakir,” thecommittee lost the forgiving appreciation of realpolitik it had evincedin the cases of men like Roosevelt and Wilson and became inflexiblyhigh-minded. Jacob Worm-Muller, a Norwegian history professor who wrotea briefing memo for the committee, remarked censoriously that Gandhi“is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.”Year after the year the committee found reasons to reject him.

Thechairman of this year’s committee, a ductile social democrat calledThorbjørn Jagland, was refreshingly frank about the selection of Obama.The committee could not, year after year, simply honor peace workerswithout marquee appeal. He didn’t mention it, but last year’srecipient, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, drew acollective world yawn except among those fuming at his disgustingrecord as a broker in the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia. Sothey decided to shop for the headlines.

Peoplemarvel at the idiocy of these Nobel awards, but there’s method in themadness, since in the end they train people to accept without demur orprotest absurdity as part and parcel of the human condition, which theyshould accept as representing the considered opinion of rational men.It’s a twist on the Alger myth, inspiring to youth: You, too, can getto murder Filipinos, or Palestinians, or Vietnamese or Afghans andstill win a Peace Prize. That’s the audacity of hope at full stretch.

Soone shouldn’t take these prizes too seriously, but simply cheer when aprize committee somewhere does the right thing. What do Paul Robeson,Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda all have in common? They won theInternational Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, whichwas in business from 1950 to 1955. Then it became the InternationalLenin Prize, honoring many estimable toilers for human betterment, suchas WEB Du Bois, Salvador Allende, Sean McBride and Angela Davis.

Readthat list and you rapidly get a fix on the outer limits of the NobelCommittee’s range of political sympathy. Obama’s award was a giftdispensed from the battlements of capital, recognizing that empire isin a safe pair of hands.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.

Copyright 2009 Creators.