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The international politics behind Obama's Nobel Peace prize

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama appears to be an effort to spur on, rather than reward, peacemaking.

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The 1996 award of the peace prize to Cardinal Carlos Belo and politician Jose Ramos Horta -- both prominent campaigners for East Timorese independence from Indonesia -- put a spotlight on their cause and helped create the conditions that led to Indonesia's pullout from the country in 1999. Mr. Horta, at the time, was serving as the spokesman for Fretilin, an armed group that waged a 20-year insurgency for independence.

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The controversial awarding of the 1994 prize to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was less successful. Though the three men eventually signed the Oslo Accords that seemed to have the two nations on a path toward peace, that effort eventually broke down. All three men could be said to have blood on their hands from that conflict, and Mr. Arafat died without achieving his dream of an independent Palestinian state. Mr. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli furious that he was negotiating land concessions.

So what is the Nobel committee after in this case? Gro Holm, the senior commentator on foreign affairs at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corp., says that the prize committee was probably trying both to ratify Obama's immense international popularity and put pressure on him to deliver on the promise of greater international peace and stability.

"You can't overlook the fact that Bush was hugely unpopular here, and that Obama has turned that trend around," says Ms. Holm. "My 14-year-old daughter was up all night watching election returns because of Obama."

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She says Obama's plan to scrap the missile shield was a "symbolic step" that "calmed down the Russians" and earned him praise in many European capitals, but also says the award was given, more than anything, to push Obama toward what the committee hopes he can achieve. "There is a feeling here that this is a risk. What does it say about the award if progress isn't made? I think Obama is a deeply moral man, and this seems designed to remind him of his promises."

She also points to Thorbjorn Jagland, a former prime minister who was appointed earlier this year to head the committee by the Norwegian parliament, as an important player in delivering the award to Obama. Holm says Mr. Jagland has an activist vision for the Nobel as a prize that can spur peace, rather than simply reward its achievement. "He likes to play big games, he's very ambitious, and this will give him a platform,'' she says. "He'll get to meet Obama and have some influence if he comes to accept the award."

Erling Borgen, a Norwegian documentary filmmaker and journalist who focuses on human rights issues, said Jagland's appointment was controversial in Norway, since his deep political involvement had some worried that the committee's reputation for evenhandedness would be compromised.

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