New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes that President Obama missed an opportunity to reject the Nobel Prize and instead put to rout the high expectations of his office. The implications of his decision to accept it, Douthat continues, will reverberate in every policy he pursues.
“Now he’s the Nobel laureate who has to choose between escalating a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan or ceding ground to a theocratic mafia. He’s the Nobel laureate who’ll either have to authorize military strikes against Iran or construct an effective, cold-war-style deterrence system for the Middle East. He’s the Nobel laureate who’ll probably fail, like every U.S. president before him, to prod Israelis and Palestinians toward a comprehensive settlement.”
Every criticism of Obama's award includes similar concerns about “how it will look now.” Is it okay that a foreign committee has granted an honor that can create such a tension, or grant a sort of greater peacemaking legitimacy, as Douthat suggests? The Times editorial page takes the point a step further, asserting with confidence that the prize is a repudiation of George W. Bush's foreign policy.
It looks like the Times editorial page is endorsing the very definition of foreign meddling in domestic affairs. Foreigners validating and then rewarding certain approaches while repudiating others is not appropriate, regardless of whether it's coming from six nations or six Norwegians.
So what is the propriety of a sitting wartime president accepting an award from a foreign committee that is merely an expression of repudiation for the behavior of his predecessor? It is especially concerning because undoubtedly, Obama's partisans will use the credential to grant him greater legitimacy in foreign policy among his own people.
That's an open question. But our democratic system already provides an outlet for such a repudiation, and it is the only kind that matters because it is the will of the American people. All others should be given the Giuliani treatment: Thanks, but no thanks.
This strikes at the heart of what I posted on Friday. The purpose of the discussion of the emoluments clause was to look at the constitutionality of Obama's acceptance of the prize. Even Teddy Roosevelt made it clear there was a discomfort with the legitimating power of the Nobel committee; Roosevelt refused to accept the prize until his term was up, and even then, he jumped through hoops to work with Congress to determine the use of the prize money.
In The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Robert Delahunty makes the point that it wasn't merely the cash or a title of nobility that had the Framers worried:
“The delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically designed the clause as an antidote to potentially corrupting foreign practices of a kind that the Framers had observed during the period of the Confederation. … Wary, however, of the possibility that such gestures might unduly influence American officials in their dealings with foreign states, the Framers institutionalized the practice of requiring the consent of Congress before one could accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from … [a] foreign State.”
By coincidence, Federalist Paper No. 22 uses Sweden as an example of the ability of foreign powers to meddle in domestic affairs. (At various points, Sweden and Norway have shared power, with Sweden running foreign affairs while Norway ran domestic affairs.) Alexander Hamilton writes: “And in Sweden the parties were alternately bought by France and England in so barefaced and notorious a manner that it excited universal disgust in the nation, and was a principal cause that the most limited monarch in Europe, in a single day, without tumult, violence, or opposition, became one of the most absolute and uncontrolled.”
No one is suggesting that Obama will start favoring American fish trading with Norway. But as Ryan Sager notes in his post, gifts tend to inspire some level of reciprocity, whether they be from an NGO or a government-appointed committee. If Obama is going to be tempted to consider peace, let it be because it is in American interests, not because he wants to hold true to Nobel's ideals.
Given that most ethics rules governing Congress are as much about avoiding the appearance of impropriety as they are about actual impropriety, one would think this would be a slam dunk, at least politically, for Obama to simply say, “No.”
Update: Here's George Washington on the issue in his farewell address:
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. …
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.
Update 2: This from Jonathan Freedland is very smart. He looks at the domestic politics and finds, shockingly, that yes, there do seem to be perfectly valid political reasons for this award. Look:
…[O]n foreign policy there is a Norwegian consensus. It favors multilateralism, yearns for nuclear disarmament, and believes in international institutions, revering the United Nations above all. This is not sandal-wearing Scandinavian altruism but hardheaded self-interest. Norway is a small nation that sits outside the European Union. Its best shot at influence is through bodies such as the UN. Plenty in Oslo speculate that Obama’s performance in New York last month—chairing the Security Council and using that body as the vehicle for his disarmament ambitions—was what clinched it for the Nobel judges.
And then this:
Even if that is fanciful, and even if the initial response has been unfriendly, the Nobel panel might yet see fruit for their labors. They stress that the Peace Prize is not only a reward for past effort, but also performs an exhortatory function. “We felt it was right to strengthen him as much as we can,” Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told Gwaldys Fouche, the Guardian’s correspondent in Oslo.
Obama himself picked up on this notion when he noted that the honor has “been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.” They may have tied his hands—making it harder for the President, as a Peace Prize laureate, to take military action against Iran or escalate in Afghanistan. They will hope, at the very least, to bind him into further action on nuclear arms and to keep faith with the UN.
In their own words, this is precisely the sort of lobbying the Framers were concerned about.