Obama Not First Surprising Nobel Peace Prize Winner: Seven Controversial Recipients

 

President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today, only eight months into his term. It's a bold—and some might say strange—move to fete a president who's still in the beginning of his diplomatic career. After all, Arizona State didn't even think he was ready for an honorary degree. Who knows what else he has in store for the United States? One thing we do know: Obama is likely to order thousands more troops into a war zone within weeks.

So the U.S. president may seem like a surprising choice for the award. This is the Nobel Peace Prize we're talking about, an honor designed to seek out and reward those whose contribution to the cause of harmony and peace on the face of this earth is both outstanding and unquestionable.

Well, most of the time. 

Although many past winners seem beyond dispute—Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa come to mind—some were controversial at the time, while others did things that undermined their reputation after being awarded the prize. Here are a few candidates for the most dubitable awards in Nobel Peace Prize history. (For our money, we'd place Obama closer to Woodrow Wilson than Yasir Arafat on the "Wait, seriously?" spectrum of winners.)

1. Elihu Root: The former U.S. secretary of state and war received the 1912 prize in recognition of his long career of advocating and brokering international negotiations. His résumé was impressive: in addition to cabinet service, Root founded the Council on Foreign Relations, presided over the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and served as a senator from New York. But he was also the author of U.S. policy in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of American imperialism. The brutal American occupation there resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos—some estimates range as high as 1.5 million—between 1899 and 1902.

2. Woodrow Wilson and Leon Bourgeois: When the American and French heads of state received their prizes in 1919 and 1920, respectively, both appeared to be visionary statesmen. Wilson had gone to Versailles and persuaded his French and British allies to take a far more moderate approach to defeated Germany than they favored. On top of that, he had brought the world's states together under the umbrella of the League of Nations, with Bourgeois serving as president of the league's council. Unfortunately, neither the Treaty of Versailles nor the League of Nations turned out as the Nobel committee must have hoped; Wilson himself was disappointed by the final treaty, which awarded territory to imperial powers rather than rendering the nation-states eventually wrought by World War II. (While the treaty was more lenient than it could have been, it also humiliated Germany, much to Hitler's benefit.) The league, for its part, was impotent to stop the rise of Hitler, the militarization of Germany, and Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.

3. Henry Kissinger: Love him or hate him, everyone has a strong opinion about the massively influential former secretary of state and national-security adviser. His detractors don't argue that Kissinger has done anything since he won the award in 1973 that would merit its retraction. It's that the things he did before receiving the award should have disqualified him in the first place. He was implicated in the escalation of America's Vietnam War strategy and accused of supporting right-wing dictators to advance American Cold War policy, at the expense of democracy and human rights in their countries. But Kissinger won the award for working to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam and correct policy errors there. That still wasn't enough for political joker Tom Lehrer, who has said that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize" (although he's often misquoted as having said instead that irony died when Kissinger won).

4. Menachem Begin, Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter: Despite the many Nobels bestowed for efforts to bring reconciliation in the Middle East, a lasting peace remains elusive. These Nobelists might have something to do with it. Israeli Prime Minister Begin won alongside Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (himself no angel), after the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; but it's tough to make an argument that a single dovish treaty—which did not, as some might have hoped, lead to further treaties—erase Begin's record of hawkish and antagonistic behavior, from leading the Revisionist Irgun to overseeing the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Similarly, although longtime Palestinian leader Arafat shared the 1994 prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for the 1993 Oslo accords, he spent the final decade of his life mired in obstructionism, doing little to improve the situation of the Palestinian people and less to advance the cause of peace. As for Carter, the finest moment of his career was overseeing the Camp David accords that produced Begin and Sadat's treaty. But some of his recent actions give pause. Will antagonizing Israel—including referring to its policy in the Occupied Territories as apartheid—really help to bring it closer to relinquishing settlements in the occupied territory? Does it further the cause of world peace to cozy up to Hugo Chávez, a rabble-rouser prone to funding proxy wars in neighboring countries?

The dual warlike and peacemaking natures of these laureates are perhaps appropriate: we wouldn't be the first to point out the irony of a peace prize named for the man who invented dynamite.

For a refresh on the early accomplishments that put Barack Obama on the Nobel committee's radar, check out our coverage of his life, his ideas, his big day, his disciples, and his fans around the world.