Honor for president comes with praise and pressure

By Gregory Katz
Associated Press / October 10, 2009

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LONDON - The choice of President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize was cheered yesterday by a global chorus from European leaders to minibus passengers in Kenya - but it also elicited criticism over the decision to break with tradition and recognize hopeful promise over concrete achievement.

Obama is seen as having changed the direction of US foreign policy, reversing many of his predecessor’s unilateral policies, and emphasizing the need for diplomacy, cooperation, and mutual respect.

Last year’s recipient, Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, said the Nobel Committee wants to encourage Obama to push harder for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Of course, this puts pressure on Obama,’’ he said. “The world expects that he will also achieve something.’’

Many admirers lauded the president for his willingness to reach out to the Islamic world, his commitment to curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons, and his goal of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians into serious, fruitful negotiations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, said Obama’s award shows great things are expected from him in the coming years.

“In a way, it’s an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all,’’ he said. “It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope.’’

He described it as a “wonderful recognition’’ of Obama’s effort to reach out to the Arab world after years of hostility.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Nobel Committee’s decision to reward Obama’s multilateral approach to the world was “great news.’’

“President Obama embodies the new spirit of dialogue and engagement on the world’s biggest problems: climate change, nuclear disarmament, and a wide range of peace and security challenges,’’ he said.

In the Kenyan city of Kisumu, the home province of Obama’s father, radio shows interrupted broadcasting to have live phone-ins so callers could congratulate Obama.

But there was far less enthusiasm in areas where America’s foreign policy is resented.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran called the awarding of the prize “hasty and too early.’’

“We have no objection if this prize is an incentive to reverse the warmongering and unilateral policies of the previous US administration,’’ the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Mottaki as saying.

“The appropriate time for awarding such a prize is when foreign military forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan and when one stands by the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people,’’ he was quoted as saying.

In the Gaza Strip, leaders of the radical Hamas movement said they had heard Obama’s speeches seeking better relations with the Islamic world, but had not been moved.

“We are in need of actions, not sayings,’’ Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said. “If there is no fundamental and true change in American policies toward the acknowledgment of the rights of the Palestinian people, I think this prize won’t move us forward or backward.’’

In Afghanistan, where US forces are engaged in a war against insurgents, President Hamid Karzai praised the Nobel decision, but others seemed unimpressed. A spokesman for Karzai said he hopes the peace prize “will ultimately lead to peace and stability in Afghanistan and our region.’’

In Vienna, former Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Obama has already provided outstanding leadership in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

“In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself,’’ ElBaradei said.

Still, some said the award was bestowed too soon, in light of the lack of tangible progress toward the vital goals of bringing peace to the Middle East, persuading Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, and improving relations with North Korea.

“The award is premature,’’ said Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at Oxford University in England. “He hasn’t done anything yet. But he’s made clear from the start of his presidency his commitment to promote peace. No doubt the Nobel Committee hopes the award will enhance his moral authority to advance the cause of peace while he’s still president.’’