Obama’s Pit Stop in Oslo

UPDATE: See also Gladys Fouché and Ewen MacAskill , “Obama’s Nobel snub angers Norwegians”, The Guardian (guardian.co.uk), Thursday 10 December 2009 08.39 GMT

Original Post
President Obama plans to make his trip to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize a short one. The Christan Science Monitor reports:

President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize episode is almost over. Wednesday night, he will board Air Force One and fly overnight to Oslo, give a speech at the award banquet, and fly home Friday. No press conference, no sticking around for the gala concert in his honor Friday night.
Valeria Criscione, The Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 2009

Actually, there is more to the story than a short trip. The details of the President’s snub of the Norwegians and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee are more unsettling. Katarina Andersson in The Daily Beast reports:

Obama Snubs the King

A day before President Obama receives his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, the president’s treatment of his Norwegian hosts has become hot news across Scandinavia.

“News outlets across the region are calling Obama arrogant for slashing some of the prize winners’ traditional duties from his schedule. “Everybody wants to visit the Peace Center except Obama,” sniped the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, amid reports the president would snub his own exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center. “A bit arrogant—a bit bad,” proclaimed another Aftenposten headline.

‘It’s very sad,” said Nobel Peace Center Director Bente Erichsen of the news that Obama would skip the peace center exhibit. Prize winners traditionally open the exhibitions about their work that accompany the Nobel festivities. “I totally understand why the Norwegian public is upset. If I could get a few minutes with the president, I’d say, ‘To walk through the exhibition wouldn’t take long, and I’m sure you would love the show. You have no idea what you are missing.’”

Meanwhile, the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet is reporting that the president has declined an invitation to lunch with King Harald V, an event every prize winner from the Dalai Lama to Al Gore has attended. (The newspaper’s headline: “Obama disses lunch with King Harald.”)

Also among the dissed, according to news reports: a concert in Oslo on Friday that was arranged in his honor, and a group of Norwegian children who had planned to meet Obama in front of City Hall.

“The American president is acting like an elephant in a porcelain shop,” said Norwegian public-relations expert Rune Morck-Wergeland. “In Norwegian culture, it’s very important to keep an agreement. We’re religious about that, and Obama’s actions have been clumsy. You just don’t say no to an invitation from a European king. Maybe Obama’s advisers are not very educated about European culture, but he is coming off as rude, even if he doesn’t mean to.”

An Overmanaged Politician?

Roger Cohen has written pointedly in the New York Times that President Obama shows signs of being overmanaged by his handlers:

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Before coming up to Canada’s Atlantic provinces, where the nicest people in this nice country are said to live, I found myself seated next to Henry Kissinger at a New York dinner and asked him how he thought President Barack Obama was doing.

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games,” Kissinger said. “But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

As an Obama admirer, I’m worried. He feels over-managed, over-scripted to me, to the point where he’s not showing the guts that prevailed at various difficult moments in the campaign. The ideas are good, but the warmth, cajoling and craft that make ideas more than that are lacking.

I find myself yearning for a presidential gaffe if only to reveal an instinctual human moment. Memo to Obama handlers: Give us a little more of the unvarnished. De-teleprompt the president for a few seconds!

Ieva Kupce, a Latvian Defense Ministry official here, told me, “Watching Obama, I worry that democracy is going out of fashion. We in Latvia would not have made it without the United States.”

The great battle of the 21st century is going to be between free-market democracies and free-market authoritarian systems. America’s position in that struggle has to be clear if Obama’s simultaneous grandmaster openings are to produce victories.

Roger Cohen, “Obama in His Labyrinth”, The New York Times, November 23, 2009.

What a Statesman Might Do

What President Obama needs to do in Oslo is not to give a good speech, but to give a visionary speech—a Reverend Wright kind of a speech. Equally important, he needs to pay tribute to the Nobel Peace Prize tradition, to Norway, and to the Nobel Peace Prize community. To be sure, much is going on, from the escalation in Afghanistan to the battle for passage of health care legislation of historic importance.

Yet the most essential quality of a Statesman is the ability to distinguish between daily presures and demands and unique historical opportunities. It is unfortunate that the President is going to Oslo with his head held down, feeling a little embarrassed, almost like Lyndon Johnson might have felt had he won the prize in 1965.

What he should do, what we have hoped he would do, is to give powerful voice to his dreams of peace, and to honor those dreams by showing deep respect for the people of Norway, the King, and the Nobel Prize Community. He should take the time–just a little bit of time–to meet the children, visit the Peace exhibition, have lunch with the King, and attend the concert in his honor.

What could be more important than that?

Even at this late hour, the Observer hopes that someone will break through President Obama’s ring of handlers and forcefully confront him with the question, “What in the world are you thinking!”

Mr. Obama should not feel sheepish over receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and should not make any apologies on that score in Oslo. He won the prize because he has awakened immense hopes in individuals throughout the world. He deserved the prize. Now he must vindicate those who have placed their hopes in him.

Perhaps it is not too late to hope that he might break free of his handlers, change his schedule, and show the world that he is not only a man of brilliant intellect, but also a man of great passion, with a heartfelt passion for peace.

The Trenchant Observer

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E-mail: observer@trenchantobserver.com

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