Friday, October 9, 2009

Ignoble Dissent

By Ashish Kumar Sen

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has provided Barack Obama's critics a fresh opportunity to reach into their bottomless reserves of cynicism.

It would be disingenuous to say news of the award was not a surprise. Even Obama, woken up before 6 a.m. with word that he had been crowned the champion of world peace, was surprised, as one is apt to be at that time of the morning.

Those who lashed out at the still-bleary-eyed president for winning a peace prize for which, one sincerely hopes no one goes out of their way to compete, were quick to point out the brief nine months he's spent in office. In the same breath some noted a lack of action from Obama on many issues dear to their hearts. So which one is it — he hasn't been in office long enough to accomplish anything; or he's been in office nine months and not done this, this and that?

One TV commentator breathlessly observed that many Americans do not like the fact that Obama has become the "darling of European capitals." Perhaps she yearns for the days when American tourists skulked across the Continent, their backpacks emblazoned with Canadian flags practicing their "aboots" at every opportunity.

Distracted by the din of dissent people have missed the point of the prize. It's not only about what Obama hopes to achieve, but about what he has achieved. His election showed the world what a son of immigrants - one of them a Kenyan - could achieve through grit and hard work in America. It went a small, but measurable, way to bring together a country long divided on the basis of skin tones. And it served as a warning to those who too often fall back on the excuse of racism suffered by their ancestors to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Yet all this pales in comparison with the kinder, gentler tone Obama has brought to American foreign policy, where the consequences of one's actions are more real and felt in homes many miles removed from the White House.

In his brief time in office Obama has dumped loosely bandied about nomenclature — "war and terror" and "axis of evil" come to mind — and engaged Iran, North Korea and even the secretive military junta in Burma. The last action winning him kudos from a fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Burma's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a speech in Cairo, just months into his young administration, he reached out to Muslims around the world alienated by America's distrust of everything brown in a post-9/11 world. By standing up to Israel's policy of indiscriminately growing settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, Obama has provided hope to Muslims that the United States can be a fair arbiter of a future peace in the Middle East.

His first actions in office — executive orders to close the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay and ban torture — were distinct steps in a much-needed makeover of America's public image.

What Obama has created is a more likable America, a country that bullies others less, and a nation that respects world institutions, especially one that sits in the heart of New York City.

Obama knows the award is not all about him. "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments. But rather as an affirmation of American leadership," he said at the Rose Garden, promising to accept it "as a call to action."

Were there others more deserving of the award? Of course there were. As I am sure there were other deserving recipients of say the Literature Nobel. But at the end of the day there is only one winner.

And there is hope.

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