Obama praises past Nobel winners

2009-12-10 12:54

Oslo - A wartime president honoured for peace, Barack Obama on Thursday praised past Nobel winners for giving "voice to the voiceless".

Obama's first stop in this chilly, damp Nordic capital where he formally becomes a Nobel laureate himself was the Norwegian Nobel Institute, where the Nobel committee meets to decide who gets the prestigious prize. The president will receive his Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma at a ceremony later.

After signing the guest book at the Institute with a lengthy passage, Obama told reporters he had penned thanks to the committee members while noting the pictures of former winners filling the wall, singling out the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama said the prize, given to the civil rights leader in 1964, increased King's stature in the world and had a "galvanising effect" for his cause at home.

First lady Michelle Obama teased her husband gently. "You writing a book there?" she said as he wrote. Asked by Nobel permanent secretary, Geir Lundestad, to add her own inscription, she quipped that "mine won't be as long". The president bantered back: "She will resist writing something sarcastic."

'Lecture for the world'

The president is joining the list of winners under such odd circumstances - honuored for working to reshape the way the US deals with the world just days after ordering 30 000 more American troops to the Afghanistan war - that he will make a point of it.

Obama's Nobel speech - a tradition that goes to the winner and is billed as a lecture for the world - will explore his thinking about war, security and the pursuit of peace. He is likely to spell out the role of American leadership and the responsibilities of all nations.

There will be plenty of splashy ceremony in Obama's honour, too.

In the evening, Obama is expected to wave to a torchlight procession from his hotel balcony and stroll with Norwegian royalty to a dinner banquet. He will offer comments a second time there and cap his brisk jaunt to Europe covering not even two days.

The president and his wife, Michelle, arrived to a chilly, damp Oslo morning after an overnight flight from Washington. He and the first lady came off Air Force One holding hands and smiling, greeted by a small clutch of dignitaries. Obama was due back in Washington by midday on Friday.

He also was to meet with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg while in Oslo.

Aspirations recognised

The Nobel committee announced Obama had won the peace prize when he wasn't even nine months on the job, recognising his aspirations much more than his achievements.

The panel cited his call for a world free of nuclear weapons, for a more engaged U.S. role in combating global warming, for his support of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy and for broadly capturing the attention of the world and giving its people "hope."

It was such a surprise, and derided so loudly by some critics as premature, that the Nobel committee took the unusual step of defending itself. Obama reacted with humility, saying he was undeserving.

Obama's quick trip reflects a White House that sees little value in trumpeting an honour for peace just nine days after Obama announced he was sending more troops off to war.

Asked if Obama was excited about the award, national security aide and speechwriter Ben Rhodes responded, "I think he feels as if it places a responsibility upon him."

"It's the company that you keep as a Nobel laureate that I think makes the deepest impression upon him," said Rhodes, who was helping craft the president's speech. "That kind of adds an extra obligation to essentially extend the legacy."

Obama was considering lots of ideas for the speech and had been expected to winnow them into a final draft aboard Air Force One.

Irony

The peace-award-in-wartime irony hasn't gone unnoticed here.

Peace activists plan a 5 000-person anti-war protest. Protesters have plastered posters around Oslo featuring the image of Obama from his iconic campaign poster, altered with scepticism to say, "Change?"

Demonstrators plan to gather in sight of Obama's hotel room balcony, and chant slogans playing on Obama's own slogans, foremost among them: "Change: Stop the War in Afghanistan."

A local convenience store chain, Narvesen, promoted its coffee with an "Obama in Oslo" sale, listing prices in dollars aimed at members of Obama's entourage.

The list of Nobel peace laureates over the last 100 years includes transformative figures and giants on the world stage. They include heroes of the president, such as Nelson Mandela and others he has long admired, like George Marshall, who launched a postwar recovery plan for Europe.

The Nobel honour comes with a $1.4m prize. The White House says Obama will give that to charities but has not yet decided which ones.

- AP

Read more on:    barack obama  |  norway  |  oslo  |  nobel prize  |  nobel peace prize
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