Yesterday, I was challenged by Caleb Howe, the legitimate face of RedState’s evil empire, to explain why Yasser Arafat, former President of the PLO, deserved a Nobel Prize, but President Ronald Reagan did not. Naturally, I accepted the challenge: due to some faulty assumptions embedded in the question, this should be pretty easy.
First, Yasser Arafat died never having received a Nobel Prize. At least, not in his own right. It’s a common misconception that Arafat received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. That year, he did receive 1/3 of the Prize, but only in his capacity as a negotiating party to the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. He shared the prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of Israel. Rabin, of course, would later be assassinated by a right-wing Israeli militant, in a tragic reminder that peace requires participation on both sides.
One can question whether Arafat’s intentions in negotiating the accords were ever pure, and whether he ever intended to live up to his end of the bargain. The Oslo Accords, we well know, would shortly break down and come to naught, especially after the Palestinian National Authority’s 2006 elections yielded a Hamas victory — another reminder that democracy has its disadvantages — resulting shortly in across-the-board violence.
Despite the Accords’ eventual failure, Arafat’s role in the Oslo Accords resulted in the first face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leadership, an official recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and a renunciation — at least on paper — of terrorism. Many of these promises have failed. But in 1994, the Nobel committee was reasonable in believing peace to be within reach, and crediting Arafat at least partially for that remarkable possibility. For his part, Arafat himself regarded the Prize as aspirational rather than declaratory: a challenge to be lived up to, and not a reward for a fait accompli. Whether his future conduct rendered him a poor choice for (a 1/3 portion of) the Nobel Peace Prize, the Oslo Accords were, in 1994, a great step forward, and the Nobel Committee was right to recognize it.
And so we come to Reagan. Today’s Reagan mythology, of a tough-talking pro-business market-builder, a founder of “compassionate conservatism,” is just that. The rich/poor gap increased drastically on Reagan’s watch, as real wages actually declined; he wasn’t much of a deregulator; he invented the modern budget deficit; and he wasn’t even that popular, in or out of office. Basically, he was a domestic disaster, who stepped into office in 1981 to take credit for the end of the late ’70s economic slump, already in the process of resolving itself (his inauguration coincided with a drop in worldwide oil prices), and went on to create the early ’90s slump that would kill his immediate successor, pave the way for President Clinton, and set in motion the events that would lead to our current predicament. Meanwhile, he ignored the growing AIDS crisis, and dealt with terrorists to fund other terrorists in contravention of express law to the contrary. His contributions to the Cold War were to provoke Russia with a profoundly ineffectual but politically costly missile defense program, and to inhabit the Oval Office at the same time as a reformist Russian leader (Gorbachev), allowing him to take credit for a collapse that was, by that time and all reports, already inevitable. Nothing special, or profoundly peaceful. The question, it seems, isn’t why Reagan didn’t get a Nobel Prize, but why the hell we still have schools and airports named after the guy.
But for one thing. After playing the part of a rabid, right-wing anticommunist for his first term, President Reagan had, by his second turn, determined that Mikhail Gorbachev was something special — not a shoe-banging, fire-breathing Communist, but a reformer with a legitimate interest in peace. In his second term, Reagan met with Gorbachev and Soviet leaders (*gasp!*) without preconditions, advocated for a world without nuclear weapons, and otherwise gave Gorbachev the breathing room he needed to work for peace. This, of course, was met with incredulous rage on the right, because how dare he?! And so we get the “Tear Down This Wall” speech — not an earth-shattering demand that singlehandedly laid low the Soviet Union (after a twenty-nine month lag time) — but an attempt to slake the blood-thirsty right, and provide political cover for his new policy of engagement.
Did Reagan deserve the Nobel Prize? Probably not. His late change of heart on how best to handle the Soviet Union lets him claim to have assisted, but not set in motion, communism’s dramatic fall. Set against his profoundly negative domestic actions, and the remainder of his international failings, this lets him crawl slightly closer to a net value of zero on the “hero or villain” scale.
A thought experiment, though. Imagine that Reagan had no impact on America’s domestic prosperity, positive or negative, and had done nothing other than engage Russian leaders as peers. Well, then Reagan might deserve the Nobel, and so would Obama.