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As US Continues Afghan, Iraq Occupations and Quashes Accountability for Gaza Assault, Critics Decry Awarding of Nobel Peace Prize to Obama

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President Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, less than nine months after taking office. The award comes despite Obama’s continuation of the Iraq war and escalation of the US occupation of Afghanistan. We get reaction from author and journalist Naomi Klein and London-based author and commentator Tariq Ali. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, less than nine months after taking office. The chair of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, made the announcement today in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

    THORBJORN JAGLAND: [translated] The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Nobel Committee specifically highlighted what it called Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world and his attempts to curb nuclear proliferation. After the announcement, Jagland took questions from journalists.

    REPORTER: If we could just go over that same territory of the fact that he’s not been in office one year yet and has not fulfilled any of his promises, may never do so, and in English, if you could state why you’re so certain that this is a good choice so early in the day.

    THORBJORN JAGLAND: Because we would like to enhance, to support what is he’s trying to do, what is he trying to achieve. And it is a clear signal to the world that we want to advocate the same as he has done, namely to promote international diplomacy, to strengthen the international institutions, to work for a world free of nuclear arms. All these kind of things, which — I mean, it’s a longstanding history of the Nobel Committee that we have tried to promote that kind of attitudes and that kind of policies. And, I mean, I could mention a lot of examples of awarding a prize to a personality that has started that kind of processes in the very beginning.

    REPORTER: Mr. Obama is in the middle of a major decision, as you know, on — and will probably end up increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. How does the committee feel about that at this time?

    THORBJORN JAGLAND: The conflict in Afghanistan concerns us all. And we do hope that an improvement of the international climate and the emphasis on negotiations could help resolve that. I do not claim that it must help or will help, but we could hope that this could help resolving that conflict, as well.

    REPORTER: And what — do you have an opinion about raising the troop levels, increasing the —

    THORBJORN JAGLAND: Well, I could have an opinion, but not the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama took office less than two weeks before the nomination deadline. He is the third sitting American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize after Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

For more, we’re joined by award-winning journalist and author Naomi Klein. She’s the author of the books The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She joins us on the line from her home in Toronto.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Naomi.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your reaction to this surprise announcement?

NAOMI KLEIN: You know, I try not to speak about things before I really had a process — you know, a chance to process it, because my raw reaction is really that this represents — it’s very significant and disappointing, cheapening of the Nobel Prize. And, you know, it’s been cheapened before, and it will cheapen again — be cheapened again, but I think there’s something really striking here. And even just listening to the rationale that, despite overwhelming evidence, they’re giving this prize in the hopes that it will change Obama’s mind or encourage him to do things he hasn’t done — this is a candidate that ran a campaign that was much more based on hope and wishful thinking than it was on concrete policy. So we have hopes being piled on hope and wishful thinking.

This is supposed to be a prize that rewards concrete behavior, concrete action. And there are many people out there in the world who were under consideration for this prize, who every day perform acts that are taken at enormous risk for concrete benefit. I mean, I think that one of the people — one of the names under consideration this year was Dr. Mukwege in the Congo, in the DRC. This is somebody who is under personal threat because he is saving the lives of women every day who have been violently raped. And giving the prize to Dr. Mukwege — and I’m just giving one example — would have been such a concrete victory and encouragement for that action. It would have put pressure on the United States to take action, on the international community to take action, for the women of the Congo. And instead of that, we have this very, very political decision, and in many ways it’s like a pat on the head for good behavior or the hope of good behavior, because actually we’ve seen a lot of bad behavior. And we can come back to this.

But what I’m working on right now is a piece for Rolling Stone about the climate negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. And one of the things that the Obama administration is being rewarded for with this prize or what Barack Obama is personally being rewarded for in this prize is his supposed breakthroughs on international relations. What we’re actually seeing, as we speak, in Bangkok — this is the final day of two weeks of climate negotiations — has been extraordinarily destructive behavior on the part of the United States government, on the part of the Obama administration, absolutely derailing the climate negotiations in the lead-up to Copenhagen. Developing countries are absolutely shocked by what US climate negotiators have done. They have gone into these talks saying, you know, “We’re back. We want to reengage with the world.” What they’ve actually done is made a series of demands that would destroy the Kyoto Protocol and the binding emission architecture that was set up under Kyoto. So, to reward the Nobel Prize in the context of destroying the climate, where the US is destroying the climate negotiations, or threatening to, to me, is just shocking.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Naomi, the Nobel Committee specifically cited Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world. And I’d like you to comment, especially in light of the fact that right now the President is considering a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan and also the US government’s criticism of the Goldstone report on the Israeli war in Gaza.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I’ll start with the second point, because this is something else that is so strange about the timing. I think the moment of just rewarding Obama for awakening hope and optimism has clearly passed. And we certainly see this in the context of Israel-Palestine, where there was a huge amount of hope that was awakened and inspired by Obama’s rhetoric, by his historic Cairo speech. But now we’re past that moment. He didn’t just give that speech yesterday. And now is the moment when we’re seeing his actual commitment to change. And it has been one disappointment after the next.

First, an extremely half-hearted attempt to get tough with the Netanyahu government when it comes to settlement expansion. I say “half-hearted,” because demands were made, but they weren’t followed through with any kind of muscle. As we know, the US has more than moral suasion to use with the Netanyahu government, if it’s really opposed to settlement expansion. There are billions of military aid that, of course, is never put on the table. And after a little bit of moral suasion failed, we see the same defeatism setting in.

And then the Goldstone report. You know, one of the supposed victories of the US reengagement with multilateralism has been the US taking a seat on the Human Rights Council. But what we see, as in the context of the climate negotiations, is the US is reengaging, but in an extremely destructive way, using their status, their seat at the table, to undermine international law. That’s happening in the context of the climate negotiations, and now it’s happened in the context of the Goldstone report, where, rather than strengthening international law, the US pressure on Abbas and also their own words and actions undermine a crucial report, which should have been a breakthrough.

And the Obama administration wasted absolutely no time in selling out Judge Richard Goldstone with no basis of fact whatsoever. The report was extremely balanced. The Obama administration could have stepped back and allowed it to work its way through the UN system, really kind of hid behind the UN on this one. Here you have a judge with an extraordinary international reputation for his belief in international law and his commitment to the reality of the — of “never again,” whether in the context of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. And this is somebody who’s really, really been committed to that idea. And the US has allowed his reputation to be destroyed, and contributed to it in many ways. So this is a moment where Palestinians more and more are saying, “OK, you raised our hopes, and now you’re dashing them.”

And then, in the middle of all this, the Nobel Prize Committee awards their top honors to Obama. And I think it’s quite insulting. I don’t know what kind of political game they’re playing, but I don’t think that the committee has ever been as political as this or as delusional as this, frankly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Naomi Klein, I’d like to thank you for joining us on such short notice, since this was announced just a few hours ago, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. Naomi Klein, the well-known journalist and author of the bestselling books Shock Doctrine and No Logo.

We had hoped to get Jeremy Scahill on to respond, as well, but we’ve had some problems. But we did manage, just before the program, to reach journalist and activist Tariq Ali. He has written over a dozen books and is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous asked Tariq Ali for his reaction to Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

    TARIQ ALI: Nobel [inaudible] surprises me. They’ve awarded the prize in the past to US presidents. Teddy Roosevelt, not particularly known for his love of peace. They’ve awarded it to Jimmy Carter, etc., etc. So the choice of Barack Obama, the only thing one can say is that they should have possibly waited; a decent interval might have been better, if they had waited ’til next year, because at the present moment US troops are occupying two countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. For all the talk, US soldiers remain in Iraq, and their bases are likely to stay there for some time. And the war in Afghanistan continues unabated, with President Obama actually sending in more troops. More people are being killed, both Afghans and NATO soldiers. The war has been expanded into Pakistan. So this is a sort of odd, though not surprising, choice by the Nobel Prize Committee.

    They tend to take rhetoric very seriously. And though they deny it, we know that in 1938 they couldn’t decide whether to give the prize to Hitler or to Gandhi. And finally, they gave it to the Nansen International Office of Refugees, which was a much better choice.

    It would be worth their while thinking that perhaps they should have a self-denying ordinance. They shouldn’t give the prize to serving heads of state. People still in power [inaudible] people making war.

    I mean, I could have given them two candidates who are very deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. One is, of course, Noam Chomsky, who has fought for peace all his life. And the other is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been peacefully sitting in prison, waiting for justice for the last twenty-five years. Now, that would have given people something to think about.

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what about the Nobel Committee’s citing Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world? Your reaction?

    TARIQ ALI: Well, Obama made a speech in Cairo, where he spoke to the Muslim world, as US presidents have done in the past. In contrast to Bush, of course, that appears very dramatic. And it was welcome, in a way, that he said, “You’re not our enemies.” But, you know, actions always speak louder than words.

    There has been no progress whatsoever on the Israel-Palestine talks. The administration is incapable of dealing with Netanyahu and the extreme right in Israel, which is now in power. And there has been no development in terms of getting out of Iraq completely. There are constant pressures being put on Tehran and war in Afghanistan. So talking to the Muslim world is fine, but one should always base one’s judgment on what politicians do, not on what they say.

    SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you’ve written much on Pakistan in your book The Duel. It’s called The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power. What about the Obama administration’s stance towards Pakistan?

    TARIQ ALI: Well, the Obama administration’s stance towards Pakistan is to see it exclusively in instrumentalist terms as to whether it’s doing its bidding or not. This was the position of the previous administration. And Patterson, the US ambassador in Pakistan, behaves and acts like a viceroy. They’re expanding their military presence in the country. They are expanding the land holdings they have in that country, building more and more places for themselves, no doubt for their spy networks, as well. And they are essentially backing a corrupt regime, whose president does their bidding. In terms of what ordinary people in Pakistan need and what the real problems in that country are, they’ve actually done very little.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Tariq Ali, the noted journalist, activist, cultural critic and author. He has written over a dozen books and is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous interviewed him earlier.

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