Oslo: US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for giving the world “hope for a better future” and striving for nuclear disarmament, in a surprise award that drew both warm praise and sharp criticism.
The decision to bestow one of the world’s top accolades on a president less than nine months into his first term, who has yet to score a major foreign policy success, was greeted with gasps of astonishment from journalists at the announcement in Oslo.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. But critics -- especially in parts of the Arab and Muslim world -- called its decision premature.
Obama’s press secretary woke him with the news before dawn and the president felt “humbled” by the award, a senior administration official said.
When told in an email from Reuters that many people around the world were stunned by the announcement, Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, responded, “As are we.”
The first African-American to hold his country’s highest office, Obama, 48, has called for disarmament and worked to restart the stalled West Asia peace process since taking office in January.
“Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in a citation.
While the decision won praise from statesmen like Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, both former Nobel laureates, it was also attacked in some quarters as hasty and undeserved.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and opposes a peace treaty with Israel, said the award was premature at best.
“Obama has a long way to go still and lots of work to do before he can deserve a reward,” said Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri. “Obama only made promises and did not contribute any substance to world peace. And he has not done anything to ensure justice for the sake of Arab and Muslim causes.”
Issam al-Khazraji, a day labourer in Baghdad, said, “He doesn’t deserve this prize. All these problems -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- have not been solved...The man of ‘change´ hasn’t changed anything yet.”
Liaqat Baluch, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative religious party in Pakistan, called the award an embarrassing “joke”.
But the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, welcomed it and expressed hope that Obama “will be able to achieve peace in the Middle East”.
Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland rejected suggestions from journalists that Obama was getting the prize too early, saying it recognised what he had already done over the past year.
“We hope this can contribute a little bit to enhance what he is trying to do,” he told a news conference.
The committee said it attached “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”, saying he had “created a new climate in international politics”.
Without naming Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, it highlighted the differences in America’s engagement with the rest of the world since the change of administration in January.
“Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.
“Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts,” it said, and the United States was playing a more constructive role in tackling climate change.
Obama laid out his vision on eliminating nuclear arms in a speech in Prague in April. But he was not the first American president to set that goal, and acknowledged it might not be reached in his lifetime.
He is negotiating arms cuts with Russia, and last month dropped plans to base elements of a US anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow had seen the scheme as a threat, despite US assurances it was directed against Iran.
On other pressing issues, Obama is deliberating whether to send more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is still searching for breakthroughs on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme and on West Asia peace.
Israel’s foreign minister said on Thursday there was no chance of a peace deal for many years. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters, “The Nobel prize for peace? Obama should have won ‘the Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians´.”
At home, Obama’s popularity is flagging under the pressure of rising unemployment and a divisive, sometimes bitter debate over his healthcare reform plans.
Abroad, he is still widely seen around the world as an inspirational figure.
Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been tipped as a favourite for the prize, told Reuters that Obama was a deserving candidate and an “extraordinary example”.
Obama’s uncle Said Obama told Reuters by telephone from the president’s ancestral village of Kogelo in western Kenya, “It is humbling for us as a family and we share in Barack’s honour... we congratulate him.”
Obama is the third senior US Democrat to win the prize this decade after former vice president Al Gore won in 2007 along with the UN climate panel and Jimmy Carter in 2002.
The prize worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) will be handed over in Oslo on 10 December.