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How the Peace Prize Could Affect Obama’s Presidency

October 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff gets reactions from policy experts on President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize and discusses what the award means for his presidency.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And for reaction to today’s news, we turn to two longtime foreign policy makers and watchers.

Zbigniew Brzezinski served as national security adviser to President Carter and is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Walter Russell Mead is the Henry Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books on U.S. diplomacy.

Thank you both for being with us.

Dr. Brzezinski, I’m going to start with you.

What was your reaction?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I feel he definitely deserved it, but he also has to earn it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Definitely deserved it. Why?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: But also has to earn it.

He deserves it because, in the course of less than a year, he really has refined America’s relationship with the world. He has grandly improved America’s image in the world. He has committed America to a series of policies designed to resolve conflicts and to deal in a non-unilateral fashion with key issues. And he has committed America to grand goals in the area of nuclear weaponry, global problems and so forth.

You know, if you consider that this has taken place in the course of just several months, that’s a tremendous accomplishment for the most powerful state in the world, to have its total posture changed, redefined, improved, more idealistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Walter Russell Mead, what was your reaction?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I was I was thrilled.

It’s — it’s a wonderful tribute to President Obama. And I think, also, it — it says something about the standing of the United States in the world, not simply, as Dr. Brzezinski says, that people have seen a change in our posture.

But I think it’s also true that — that it — that, in spite of what a lot of people have said, that the U.S. is in decline, that our influence is gone, it suggests that a president of the United States still has a unique role in setting the global agenda and the global tone.

Now, you know, President Obama did win this, as some people have pointed out, on a day when he’s fighting two wars, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. And — and, actually, the U.S. today just bombed the moon in order to look for water on the surface of the moon.

So, it is, I think, a testimony to the hope that people have about where things may be going. And I’m sure that the committee thought that this was a way of putting some wind into Obama’s sails. I hope it — I hope it works.

Nobel a 'hostage to fortune'

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
If some of his peace initiatives bog down, or if things should begin to go poorly in either Iraq or Afghanistan...then the contrast between this great glittering prize and a foreign policy that could be in disarray will look bad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with -- with what Dr. Brzezinski said, though, that he deserves it because of what he has done so far?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I would say he deserves it more because where -- what he has done so far could lead in a very interesting direction.

I -- I think it would be better, probably, if he had gotten the prize later, with a couple of more achievements. But, on the other hand, you know, suppose -- suppose it all works out, and, in a couple of years, things are really on a much better footing around the world. The -- the Nobel Prize Committee will look prescient.

On the other hand, if -- if some of his peace initiatives bog down, or if things should begin to go poorly in either Iraq or Afghanistan, then its -- then the contrast between this great glittering prize and a foreign policy that could be in disarray will look bad.

So, it's a hostage to fortune. But President Obama so far has been lucky. And that's a very important quality in presidents. Some of our presidents have been smart. Other presidents have been lucky. And there's no doubt that luck is better.

And here we have President Obama right after the Copenhagen thing was -- you know, it looked like he had lost some momentum. Now along comes the Nobel Prize Committee, and, once again, he's the brightest star in the global political firmament.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zbigniew Brzezinski, we heard the president say he's going to take this as a call to action. Will it -- what will it actually help him accomplish as president?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I really meant -- I really meant it when I said he deserved it, but he also has to earn it, in the sense that he has repositioned the United States, but he still has the obligation to fulfill the consequences of the goals that he has set in mind.

And I think this will help him enormously, because it gives added prestige to his words, to the hopes he has articulated. It puts credence behind his commitment. And I think it helps him to argue with genuine international legitimacy that the course on which he has embarked, either in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or vis-a-vis Iran, or vis-a-vis the global issues is a course that benefits not only the United States, the American national interests, but ultimately benefits humanity.

That helps him. If he, for example, now takes some initiative to move things forward in what is currently stalemated, namely, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he will be doing it with this additional impetus, this additional authority, this additional international expectation that he moves forward.

And, thereby, he will not only affirm the fact that he deserves it, but he will be, additionally, earning it.

The burden of the award

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former Natinal Security Advisor
I really meant it when I said he deserved it, but he also has to earn it, in the sense that he has repositioned the United States, but he still has the obligation to fulfill the consequences of the goals that he has set in mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Mead, does that -- would you agree with that? And, I mean, specifically, does it help him dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan and dealing with the Iranian leaders?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think your -- your point -- those plus the Israeli-Palestinian problem are probably the three most urgent we face. And I think in all three of those cases, I don't think it helps him much, in that we -- you know, Hamas and the Taliban have already denounced the prize.

The Israelis tend not to, on the whole, be that impressed by these prizes. So, this more improves the atmospherics. But, in terms of the tough bargaining, the Iranian mullahs don't particularly think that this committee of infidels in Norway has any great moral standing. Prizes have been given to Iranian dissidents. That doesn't -- doesn't impress them.

On the other hand, it may well strengthen some of the forces of democracy in Iran, who see them -- will have more reason to see themselves as part of a worldwide movement. But I think, when it comes to the tough bargaining with tough governments and the guerrilla wars, this is going to be not the biggest concrete boost for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it helping in Iran, Afghanistan?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Iran, I think, is a different case. I think, Israel-Palestine, it does help. It helps, because Israel is not an island isolated from the world.

Israeli public opinion is part of the global part -- opinion. There is a sense that, if the international community, the United States, is endowed with moral authority, beyond the president's personal prestige or institutional prestige of his presidency, it really helps the efforts. I think it just makes it part of a general surge worldwide towards a resolution of some of these issues.

Now, when you sit down and negotiate with the Iranians, obviously, it is not going to affect the negotiations. But it still gives the U.S. position, the fact that the U.S. is engaged in the peace process, the fact that the U.S. is not thumping the table and threatening military action, additional international legitimacy. And that is not to be disregarded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw some commentary today, Walter Russell Mead, that it could actually do some harm, that this could just raise expectations so high that the president or no president could ultimately fulfill.

Expectations too high?

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
That's been a problem that President Obama has faced all along. I'm not sure that this makes it much worse. He's -- really came in as this larger-than-life figure

JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw some commentary today, Walter Russell Mead, that it could actually do some harm, that this could just raise expectations so high that the president or no president could ultimately fulfill.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Yes, that's been a problem that President Obama has faced all along.

I'm not sure that this makes it much worse. He's -- really came in as this larger-than-life figure and as we know in the recent weeks people have said, well, maybe he's not so much larger-than-life. We have already been through a couple of cycles, maybe, of overexcitement and then over-disillusionment with Obama.

I think what we and the president are all going to have to do is to get used to this day-to-day grind of the president trying to make foreign policy into -- in a tough world. And we need to give him all the support that we can and, certainly, the prayers and best wishes that he can make enough progress on peace, so that no one will argue with this Peace Prize.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Brzezinski, if you are President Obama, what do you do with this?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, I feel honored if I were him. He also rightly says that the honor is shared with all Americans.

But, beyond that, it's a kind of historical reminder to him to stay on course. You know, it's not going to be easy to move forward on most of these issues. There are going to be moments of disappointment, disillusionment. Some of his initiatives are going to be denounced.

The Israeli foreign minister said yesterday that his quest for peace is an illusion. This gives him an added dose of historical confidence and a little nudge: Stick with it. Don't give up in the face of difficulties. Persist, because your course is right.

I think that's very important to every human being, and particularly someone who can find himself suddenly beleaguered, as to some extent Obama is becoming domestically and maybe even internationally. So, it is a further boost. It is a kind of footnote to his place in history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Walter Russell Mead, final word. What should he do with this? Where should he take it?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think he probably should try to dampen expectations. He's the third African-American to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King did in 1964. Ralph Bunche was the first in 1950. He got it for his work on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

So, that is almost, what, 60 years ago. It may be that perhaps -- that patience is the most important quality this president is going to have to have going forward united to determination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, thank you both, Walter Russell Mead in New York, Zbigniew Brzezinski here in Washington.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, we have an interview with historian Peniel Joseph about the other U.S. presidents who won the Peace Prize. Also online, you can find links to stories about the award from around the world.