The Magazine

A Dynamite Prize

The Nobel Prize for peace that passeth understanding.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Once the sniggering is over and the king of Norway has had his smoked salmon spit-take toweled off, everyone will realize that giving Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize was an inspired choice.

The peace prize committee members have achieved what Buddhists call satori. Enlightenment came to them through contemplation of an ancient Zen koan, "What is the sound of one American president doing *$@#-all?" The answer is "ka-ching"--a $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize.

The five members of the prize selection committee (chosen by the Norwegian Parliament, apparently at random from the local methadone clinic) will now travel the world offering all of humanity release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Or did the 1989 peace prize winner, the Dalai Lama, do that already?

The Nobel Peace Prize has always been a joke--albeit a grim one. Alfred Bernhard Nobel famously invented dynamite and felt sorry about it. In fact, he was a good deal worse than that. Dynamite's okay--clearing beaver dams, blowing stumps, blasting hillsides to spend Obama stimulus money on pointless HOV interstate lanes. But Nobel was the experimental progenitor of all modern high explosives. Nobel was the man who transformed the cannon from a pirate-ship pop gun to an airmail express delivery system for slaughter. Nobel was the fellow who allowed assassins to make the evolutionary leap from cloak and dagger Caesar-stickers to Timothy McVeigh. Plus Nobel invented smokeless gunpowder, which dispelled the fog of war and turned the modern battle into a pellucid field of fire. As murderous -industrial magnates go, Alfred Nobel is right up there with Ray Kroc, franchiser of McDonald's.

Nobel left most of his huge fortune to an endowment that funds the prizes named after himself. Beginning in 1901 five Nobels have been awarded pretty much annually. They are given for chemistry, physics, medicine, literature "of an ideal tendency," and peace. Since 1969 there's been a sixth prize, for economics--to no good effect, judging by my 401(k). I don't know enough about chemistry, physics, medicine, or literature of an ideal tendency to say whether these prizes have done harm. But the peace prize stinks.

Theodore Roosevelt got the 1906 prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War after it was over. Never mind his role in starting the Spanish-American War, an altogether less worthwhile conflict. We conquered Puerto Rico! And the 1919 honoree, Woodrow Wilson, gave us America's participation in World War I, and then, with his Versailles Treaty, he gave us everybody's participation in World War II. "Woody's World" is with us right down to the present day in places such as Kosovo. Thus, with President Wilson alone, the Nobel Peace Prize death toll is over 50 million and counting.

Occasionally the peace prize has gone to actual peace negotiators but usually, per Teddy Roosevelt, when there was nothing left to negotiate. Carlos Saavedra Lamas got his in 1936 for mediating between Bolivia and Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932-35). Both nations were exhausted, 100,000 soldiers were dead, and the Chaco was--as it had been and remains--a vast, useless weed patch. Likewise, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan (1976) and John Hume and David Trimble (1998)--the four of them were standing around when, after 500 years, the fool residents of my ancestral homeland ran out of ammo and beer.

Nelson Mandela (1993) and Menachem Begin (1978) didn't negotiate peace; they negotiated their manner of winning. Martin Luther King (1964) was a pacifist, perhaps, but his real genius was showing how, in a democracy (however imperfect), under rule of law (ditto), violence is counterproductive. The rioting after his death proved his point.

Other peacemakers were even less effective. William McKinley's secretary of war (sic), Elihu Root, was honored for advocating a League of Nations, rather prematurely, in 1912. Worse yet was the timing of Henri La Fontaine, a member of Parliament in gallant little Belgium. He received a prize for being president of the Permanent International Peace Bureau in 1913. Aristide Briand (1926) and Frank B. Kellogg (1929) forged the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 in which Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy, Japan, and nine other nations forswore "recourse to war for the solution of international controversies." But the Japanese ate their Wheaties and invaded Manchuria.

Ralph Bunche (1950) attempted to soothe the hard feelings between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Thanks "a Bunche," Ralph. Lester Pearson (1957) tried to end the Suez conflict (though it was Dwight Eisenhower--no prize--who ended it). Dag Hammarskjold (1961) brought lasting harmony to the Congo or surely would have if his plane hadn't crashed. Kim Dae-jung (2000) created the concord and amity with North Korea that we enjoy today. Kofi Annan (2001) left us with--I quote the prize committee--"a better organized and more peaceful world." And there's no end to the good that Jimmy Carter (2002) did--for Republicans.

Some peace prize winners experienced precious little peace at the time of their winning: Andrei Sakharov (1975), Lech Walesa (1983), Desmond Tutu (1984), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).

Of course, if you go around giving prizes left and right (mostly left) for more than a century, you're bound to give some to worthy people once in a while. With the Nobel committee this usually involves the Red Cross (1901, 1917, 1944, 1963). But the Red Cross doesn't bring peace, it brings bandages. Then there are such estimable folks as Albert Schweitzer (1952), Mother Teresa (1979), Elie Wiesel (1986), and micro-credit banker Muhammad Yunus (2006). I'm glad they had a payday. I'm a fan of their work. But, huh?

Lately the peace prize committee is just messing with our heads. They honored Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, by which time India, Pakistan, Iran, and hence every cab driver in New York had the bomb. In 2008 they gave the prize to "Martti Ahtisaari," supposedly a former president of Finland, "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts." They're pulling that out of their boxer shorts. And let's not mention Al Gore (2007) except to note that Abraham Lincoln did not urge us, in his Second Inaugural Address, to "achieve and cherish a just and lasting cap on carbon emissions among ourselves and with all nations."

Speaking of justice, where in the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners are the men and women of Lincoln's mettle, who brought just and lasting peace to whole continents? Where is Winston Churchill? Franklin Roosevelt? Harry Truman? Margaret Thatcher? Ronald Reagan? Instead what we get is Mikhail Gorbachev (1990) and Barack Obama.

Paddy walks into the bar and shouts, "Drinks all around! Me wife's next in line for the Nobel Peace Prize!"

"Paddy," says the barkeep, "Yer wife's been in a coma since January."

"Ah!" says Paddy, "Isn't peace grand!"

P. J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.