The announcement drew gasps of surprise and cries of too much, too soon. Yet President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday because the judges found his promise of disarmament and diplomacy too good to ignore.
The five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee — four of whom spoke to The Associated Press, said awarding Obama the peace prize could be seen as an early vote of confidence intended to build global support for the policies of his young administration.
They lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease U.S. conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen its role in combating climate change.
“Some people say — and I understand it — 'Isn't it premature? Too early?' Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now,” Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the AP. “It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us.”
Jagland said the committee whittled down a record pool of 205 nominations and had “several candidates until the last minute,” but it became more obvious that “we couldn't get around these deep changes that are taking place” under Obama.
Obama said he was surprised and deeply humbled by the honor, and planned to travel to Oslo in December to accept the prize.
“Let me be clear: 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,” he said at the White House. “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.”
Obama will donate the $1.4 million cash award that comes with the prize to charity.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, said the decision showed that great things are expected from Obama and “wonderful recognition” of his effort to reach out to the Arab world after years of hostility.
“It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope,” Tutu said.
Many were shocked by the unexpected choice so early in a presidency that began less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline for the prize and has yet to yield concrete achievements in peacemaking.
“So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is only beginning to act,” said former Polish President Lech Walesa, who won the peace prize in 1983.
Some around the world objected to the choice of Obama, who still oversees wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has launched deadly counterterrorism strikes in Pakistan and Somalia.
Jagland told AP that while the war in Afghanistan was a concern, the Obama administration “immediately started to reassess the strategy.”
“That itself is important, because when something goes wrong, then you need to ask yourself why is it going wrong,” he said.
Obama said he was working to end the war in Iraq and “to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies” in Afghanistan, where he is seriously considering increasing the number of U.S. troops on the ground and asking for help from others as the war enters its ninth year.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi in Afghanistan condemned the Nobel committee's decision, saying Obama had only escalated the war and had “the blood of the Afghan people on his hands.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called the Nobel decision “hasty.”
“The appropriate time for awarding such a prize is when foreign military forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan and when one stands by the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people,” he was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency.
Aagot Valle, a lawmaker for the Socialist Left party who joined the Nobel committee this year, said she hoped the selection would be viewed as “support and a commitment for Obama.”
“And I hope it will be an inspiration for all those that work with nuclear disarmament and disarmament,” she told AP in a rare interview. Members of the committee usually speak only through its chairman.
The peace prize was created partly to encourage ongoing peace efforts, but Obama's efforts are at far earlier stages than those of past winners, and the committee acknowledged they may not bear fruit at all.
“If everything goes wrong, then one cannot say that this was because of Barack Obama,” Jagland said. “It could be that it is because of us, all the others, that didn't respond. But I cannot exclude that Barack Obama also can contribute to the eventual failure.”
In Europe and much of the world, Obama is praised for bringing the U.S. closer to mainstream global thinking on such issues as climate change and multilateralism. A 25-nation poll of 27,000 people released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found double-digit boosts to the percentage of people viewing the U.S. favorably in countries around the world. That indicator had plunged across the world under President George W. Bush.
The award appeared to be at least partly a slap at Bush from a committee that harshly criticized Obama's predecessor for his largely unilateral military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“Those who were in support of Bush in his belief in war solving problems, on rearmament, and that nuclear weapons play an important role … probably won't be happy,” said Valle.
At home, the picture is more complicated. Obama is often criticized by his political opponents as he attempts to carry out his agenda — from government spending to health care to Afghanistan.
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said Obama won because of his “star power” rather than meaningful accomplishments.
“The real question Americans are asking is, 'What has President Obama actually accomplished?'” Steele said.
Drawing criticism from some on the left, Obama has been slow to bring troops home from Iraq and the real end of the U.S. military presence there won't come until at least 2012.
The Nobel committee said it paid special attention to Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world, laid out in a speech in Prague and in April and at the United Nations last month.
Former Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said Obama has already provided outstanding leadership on nuclear non-proliferation.
“He has shown an unshakable commitment to diplomacy, mutual respect and dialogue as the best means of resolving conflicts,” ElBaradei said.
In July talks in Moscow, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed that their negotiators would work out a new limit on delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads of between 500 and 1,100. They also agreed that warhead limits would be reduced from the current range of 1,700-2,200 to as low as 1,500. The U.S. now has about 2,200 such warheads, compared to about 2,800 for the Russians.
There has been no word on whether either side has started to act on the reductions.
Obama also has tried to restart stalled Mideast talks with no progress yet reported.
In the Gaza Strip, leaders of the radical Hamas movement said they had heard Obama's speeches on better relations with the Islamic world but had not been moved.
“We are in need of actions, not sayings,” Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said. “If there is no fundamental and true change in American policies toward the acknowledgment of the rights of the Palestinian people, I think this prize won't move us forward or backward.”
Obama has said that battling climate change is a priority. Yet the U.S. seems likely to head into crucial international negotiations set for Copenhagen in December with Obama-backed legislation still stalled in Congress.
Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, the peace prize is given out by the five-member committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Like the Parliament, the panel has a leftist slant, with three members elected by left-of-center parties and two right-of-center members. Jagland said the decision to honor Obama was unanimous.
The secretive committee declined to say who nominated Obama. In Nobel tradition, nominations are kept secret for 50 years, unless those making the submissions go public about their picks. This year's nominations included Colombian activist Piedad Cordoba, Afghan woman's rights activist Simi Samar and Denis Mukwege, a physician in war-torn Congo who opened a clinic to help rape victims.
Nominators for the prize are broad and include former laureates; current and former members of the committee and their staff; members of national governments and legislatures; university professors of law, theology, social sciences, history and philosophy; leaders of peace research and foreign affairs institutes; and members of international courts of law.
Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to win the award: President Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 and President Woodrow Wilson was awarded the prize in 1919.
In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”