With even many of President Obama’s supporters wondering what he has done to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, some commentators have argued that the award will backfire and cost him dearly in the domestic arena. If the prize has further polarized the US, I am not so sure yet how it will affect the president’s standing. He is at the very least a savvy politician and had he calculated that accepting it would have hurt him he might have easily declined. But Obama is smart, and maybe it is enough for the Europeans that Obama is not George W. Bush, however, here in the US, it is more specifically because Obama is smart that he is revered by a large and influential section of the American elite, and a Nobel seemingly tainted by the president’s manifest absence of accomplishments can hardly diminish what they regard as a cardinal virtue. On the contrary, the Nobel is just the sort of tribute that the world owes intelligence.
It is probably difficult for outsiders to comprehend just how important smartness is to America’s prestige intelligentsia, like our journalists, academics, lawyers, financiers, etc. I do not mean genius, but simply the intellectual aptitude that is processed through a formal education until its mind is rendered as one that sounds like it has read books and is surrounded by other minds that read books. At the extreme, American elites fetishize smartness to the extent that all things can be forgiven under the sign of smart, but smartness is by no means a bad thing. The value that Americans attach to it is what distinguishes us from the rest of the world, where most people’s fate is still determined by family, clan, class and money. In the US, anyone can hoist themselves out of their surroundings if they apply themselves, especially if they apply themselves early enough and get accepted into the best schools and succeed there, as Obama did.
The problem is that smartness is not the most useful quality for an American president to draw on as he conducts his business with the rest of the world. After all, most of the world’s other leaders get along without having had the benefit of graduate seminars. A much bigger problem is that partly because of the weight we give to smartness, the United States does not produce statesman with even a historical, never mind a visceral, understanding of their peers; that is, American presidents cannot possibly imagine the guile and cunning that that it takes, say, to rule, Egypt. To be sure, running a two-year-long US presidential campaign, especially a winning one, is a tremendous achievement, but it is not like balancing redundant security services and fighting off murderous domestic rivals while deterring regional adversaries for over three decades.
Americans are thankful our leaders have no talent for despotism, but it concerns us nonetheless when they show little aptitude for discerning the ill intent of their colleagues. For example, it worried us when Bush was incapable of reading the KGB stamp on Vladmir Putin’s soul when he looked into the Russian’s eyes.
Even the hard men of American politics are not so hard. Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, from the notoriously rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics, is reputed to be the administration’s enforcer. And yet Emanuel is also a key figure in pressuring the Israelis so that the good will generated among the Arabs will galvanize the world community to face the Iranian threat as one. That is to say, our version of hardball politics is putting the screws to a loyal ally in the hope of securing vague concessions from unreliable partners for a policy that they will not own up to publicly.
The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is hardly the administration’s only Middle East miscalculation. Engagement with Syria has led nowhere, and there seems to be no back-up plan to stop Iran from getting the bomb, aside from accepting the nuclear program as a fait accompli. It appears that the Chinese will not move toward sanctions against Tehran and neither will the Russians, even after the administration canceled a land-based missile defense system in Europe that was intended to persuade Moscow to take action against the Iranians.
And so when the president contended in his UN speech two weeks ago that, “No balance of power among nations will hold,” it is difficult not to conclude that the Obama administration is ignorant of strategic principles that are respected even by the Nobel Prize committee.
Some Americans, especially those on the right side of the political spectrum, have been frustrated by Obama’s seemingly relentless effort to apologize for the policies of his predecessor. Keep in mind that George W. Bush was not only president but also the head of the Republican party, which represents the worldview of roughly half of America. It is not clear then whether President Obama’s goal abroad is to make the world feel better about the United States or to stick it to his domestic opponents. In any case, by putting tens of millions of Americans between his party and the rest of the world, Obama invited foreigners to play a role in US politics, and the Nobel committee took him up on the offer.
The US and its friends should be relieved that it was only five Norwegian professors who decided to play divide and conquer with the American polity. Next time around it may well be the men of cunning and they will not disguise their intentions with laurels and blandishments.