x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Week in review: Nobel effort

The decision to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, just eight months into his presidency, comes at a particularly awkward moment - right when many of the hopes about what he might accomplish have started to evaporate.

The decision to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, just eight months into his presidency, comes at a particularly awkward moment - right when many of the hopes about what he might accomplish have started to evaporate. "Just five years ago, Barack Obama was still a local politician in Illinois, preparing for a run for the US Senate," wrote Gideon Rachman in The Financial Times. "His office wall in Chicago at the time was decorated with the famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in a heavyweight title fight. Ali famously boasted that he could 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee'. But now that Mr Obama is president, he seems to float like a butterfly - and sting like one as well. "The notion that Mr Obama is a weak leader is now spreading in ways that are dangerous to his presidency. The fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday will not change this impression. Peace is all very well. But Mr Obama now needs to pick a fight in public - and win it with a clean knock-out. "In truth, the Norwegians did the US president no favours by giving him the peace prize after less than a year in office. The award will only embellish a portrait of the president that has been painted in ever more vivid colours by his political enemies. The right argues that Mr Obama is a man who has been wildly applauded and promoted for not doing terribly much. Now the Nobel committee seems to be making their point for them." The image of Mr Obama as a do-nothing president featured in America's hugely popular late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Frustration with the US president's performance is nowhere more intense than among observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch wrote: "While I was in Jordan, King Abdullah gave a lengthy interview to Haaretz about the Israeli-Palestinian situation in which he warned that 'We're sliding back into the darkness'. My conversations with more than two dozen Jordanian officials, political activists, journalists and analysts suggest that on this, at least, the King reflects a widespread Jordanian consensus. Jordanians are growing increasingly frustrated with the Obama team's approach, alarmed at Netanyahu's unpunished intransigence, and downright frantic about the trend in Jerusalem. If we don't start seeing progress soon, with stronger American leadership, then the 'tinderbox' could explode. "It wasn't always like this. When I was last in Jordan about six months ago, I found a great deal of optimism over the appointment of George Mitchell and the high profile Obama gave to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But now those hopes seem to have largely evaporated. The launch of Israeli-Palestinian talks which they had expected by June continue to drift in limbo, while Obama's failure to deliver on the settlement freeze has - just as so many predicted - eroded his credibility. How could the Americans have allowed Netanyahu to not only defy US demands on settlements but to not even pay any significant price? Again and again, from all sectors of Jordanian political society, I heard the same refrain: Obama's heart is in the right place and we want him to succeed, but he's just not getting it done. "Jerusalem weighed particularly heavily in the Jordanian consciousness. I heard all kinds of dire warnings about how Israeli provocations there could suddenly spark an uncontrollable escalation back into Intifada. As the King put it, 'we are seeing problems in Jerusalem that will directly destabilise not only the relationship with Jordan...but will also create a tinderbox that will have a major flashpoint throughout the Islamic world.' Most Jordanians I talked to agreed." In the London Review of Books, David Bromwich observed that: "[Mr Obama] has acted as if he were the leader of no party; as if patience and benignity of temper could bring out the best in everyone. This is part of a larger inward confusion about his role. He seems to speak at once, or rather he seems to speak at different times, as organiser and as mediator, national leader and national healer. There is something strange about the alternation of postures, from the point of view of empirical prudence. On the largest issues that he himself raised in his opening months - his decision to close Guantánamo, to press for a two-state solution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to reform healthcare with a national plan - his pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at stage centre, followed by months of silence. He has left his agents or his advisers or his party or both parties to mind the details. During the protracted delay, the very features that give the impress of his intention are sanded away. Thus, a new kind of pressure on Israel and a resolve to create a Palestinian state appeared to be signalled by his Cairo speech in early June. It was a thoughtful speech, and a courageous one, even if you took it as a series of propositions uttered at a certain time in a certain place. Simply to address the Muslims of the world without condescension was sure to make him unforgiving enemies on the American right - including the considerable body of Christian Zionists in the Southern and border states - and Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech knowing that. Yet the four months since have seemed much longer than four months. Israel has sapped and undermined the settlement freeze. Benjamin Netanyahu gambled that he could trespass against objections by Obama's negotiators, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, and the gamble has worked." Michael Fullilove suggested that there could still be some benefits that acrue from Mr Obama receiving the peace prize. "The way this Nobel can assist, however, is by making it a little harder for the rest of the world to turn away when Mr Obama asks them for help. "One of the president's central foreign policy challenges is to convert the international goodwill felt towards his administration and his country into meaningful co-operation. America's power is great, but not unlimited. Washington cannot solve any of the biggest global issues by itself. "If the international community likes Mr Obama so much, then let them really show it. Let other leaders share Mr Obama's burdens. Let recalcitrant European powers withdraw the caveats that are preventing their troops from fighting as effectively as possible in Afghanistan, so that a just peace can be secured. Let Russia take a constructive approach to arms reduction talks, and help to maintain the pressure on Tehran to allow scrutiny of its nuclear programme. Let China and India accept their global responsibilities to mitigate climate change (and in so doing, push the US Congress in that direction, too). "If the world likes having a multilateralist in the White House, then the world should show America that multilateralism works. A Nobel is a token of the world's affections. Let it be a symbol of the world's intentions as well."

pwoodward@thenational.ae