- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 10, 2009

After recovering from their initial shock, leaders around the globe applauded Friday’s surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, saying they hoped the prize would spur his efforts on nuclear disarmament and peacemaking in some of the world’s most violent places.

Calling the honor “well-deserved,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen hailed Mr. Obama’s “strong commitment to help build peace and defend fundamental human rights, including through the Atlantic alliance.” Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it “an unexpected but inspired choice.”

But reaction to the news was mixed both at home and abroad, with some critics calling the award political and others calling it premature. At least one former Peace Prize laureate said that the president - nominated for the prize just days after he entered the White House in January - had not earned the honor.

“Who? Obama? So fast? Too fast - he hasn’t had the time to do anything yet,” said Poland’s Lech Walesa, the 1983 winner who spent a year in jail after he helped found Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union.

“For the time being, Obama’s just making proposals,” Mr. Walesa said.

Mr. Obama himself seemed slightly nonplussed speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden just hours after press secretary Robert Gibbs woke him at 6 a.m. to deliver the startling news from Oslo. Mr. Obama is the third U.S. president to receive the award while in office, following Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

“I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations,” Mr. Obama said.

“To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize - men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace,” he said.

The White House said Mr. Obama would donate the $1.4 million cash award that accompanies the prize to an unnamed charity, and confirmed that he would travel to Oslo on Dec. 10 to accept the honor.

In the hours after five Norwegians, four women and one man, put the fledgling U.S. president in the same class as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Mikhail Gorbachev and Mother Teresa, effusive praise came from European capitals, where the new American leader is much more popular than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the award an “incentive to the president and to us all” to do more for peace, adding that “his engagement for a world free of nuclear weapons is a goal that we must all try to achieve in the coming years.”

“In a short time,” she said, “he has been able to set a new tone throughout the world and to create a readiness for dialogue.”

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said he saw “the world changing” since Mr. Obama entered the White House on Jan. 20 - just 11 days before the Nobel Peace Prize Committee deadline for candidate submissions.

“I am really pleased. I want to congratulate him from my heart,” Mr. Hatoyama said on a visit to China, which issued no official statement on the award.

Critics also quickly made known their scorn for the Peace Prize choice, which came as Mr. Obama and his military advisers weigh sending tens of thousands of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to escalate a 8-year-old war.

In Afghanistan, Taliban militia spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the prize, saying, “We have seen no change in his strategy for peace. He has done nothing for peace in Afghanistan.”

The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said the U.S. leader did not deserve the award.

“He did not do anything for the Palestinians except make promises,” Hamas spokesman Samir Abu Zuhri said. “At the same time, he is giving his absolute support for the [Israeli] occupation.”

Cuba piled on. The Nobel rewarded Mr. Obama’s “promises and good intentions … with only nine months in power and little concrete results to show,” said the official Cubadebate Web site, to which longtime leader Fidel Castro regularly contributes opinion articles.

Mr. Obama “has begun pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, but America remains mired on the Afghan front, where the situation is deteriorating rapidly and more civilians are dying now than ever,” Cubadebate said. “His attempts at peace in the Middle East, which became one of his priorities, are stalled.”

But Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he hoped the award would help bring about an independent Palestinian state, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the award “expresses the hope that your presidency will usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation.”

In the United States, the honor proved yet another excuse for partisan sniping. Democrats generally applauded the award while many Republicans predictably criticized it.

“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ ” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele.

“It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain - President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”

Everyone from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to comedian Bill Cosby put in their two cents on the Norwegian committee’s decision.

“The president has consistently shown that he is committed to reaching out to other nations and positioning America to once again be the global leader for peace and prosperity,” the governor said.

“I think the president is really trying and wants badly to put the world in a better position,” Mr. Cosby said.

Officials in Iran initially issued a surprisingly moderate statement, saying the award would provide Mr. Obama with an “incentive to walk in the path of bringing justice to the world order.”

“We are not upset, and we hope that by receiving this prize he will start taking practical steps to remove injustice in the world,” said a spokesman for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But later in the day, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the “the decision was taken hastily and the award was [too] early.”

“If winning the prize acts as an encouragement to reject the warmongering and unilateral policies of previous U.S. administrations and creates an approach based on peace, then we have no opposition to it,” he told the Mehr news agency.

Meanwhile, the Vatican welcomed the announcement “in light of the president’s demonstrated commitment in favor of promoting peace on an international level, and in particular, just recently, in favor of nuclear disarmament.”

The Nobel Peace Prize committee has been criticized for political bias, especially after it awarded the prize to former President Jimmy Carter in 2002 and former Vice President Al Gore five years later - moves that were both seen as rebukes to then-President George W. Bush.

The panel has also been slammed over the years for its nominees not chosen. Most famously Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic leader of the Indian independence movement and a symbol of nonviolence, never won the Nobel Peace Prize, even though he was nominated five times.

Even in Norway, where the prize was awarded and where Mr. Obama enjoys huge popularity, there were critics.

“It is just too soon,” said Siv Jensen, leader of Norway’s main opposition party, the Progress Party. Saying the award to Mr. Obama moves the prize away from the ideals of its namesake, Alfred Nobel, she added: “It is wrong to give him the Peace Prize for his ambition. You should receive it for results.”

Joseph Weber contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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