OSLO (AP) — One judge noted with surprise that President Barack Obama “didn’t look particularly happy” at being named the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Another marveled at how critics could be so patronizing.

In a rare public defense of a process normally shrouded in secrecy, four of the Nobel jury’s five judges spoke out this week about a selection they said was both merited and unanimous.

To those who say a Nobel is too much too soon in Obama’s young presidency, “We simply disagree … He got the prize for what he has done,” committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland told The Associated Press by telephone from Strasbourg, France, where he was attending meetings of the Council of Europe.

Jagland singled out Obama’s efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.

“All these things have contributed to – I wouldn’t say a safer world – but a world with less tension,” he said.

For nine-year Nobel committee veteran Inger-Marie Ytterhorn, Obama’s demeanor spoke volumes when he first acknowledged the award during a news conference Friday on the lawn of the White House Rose Garden.

“I looked at his face when he was on TV and confirmed that he would receive the prize and would come to Norway, and he didn’t look particularly happy,” she told the AP by telephone.

“Obama has a lot of problems internally in the United States and they seem to be increasing. Unemployment, health care reform: They are a problem for him,” she said.

She acknowledged there was a risk the prize might backfire on Obama by raising expectations even higher and giving ammunition to his critics. “It might hamper him,” Ytterhorn said, because it could distract from domestic issues.

Still, she added: “Whenever we award the peace prize, there is normally a big debate about it” so the Obama controversy was not unexpected.

It was unusual, however, for the Nobel jury to speak out so candidly about their selection.

Even the most seasoned Nobel watchers were surprised by Obama’s Nobel – they hadn’t expected the U.S. president, who took office barely two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline, to be seriously considered until at least next year.

Jagland said that was never an issue for the Nobel committee, which followed the guidelines set forth by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who established the prize in his 1895 will.

“Alfred Nobel wrote that the prize should go to the person who has contributed most to the development of peace in the previous year,” Jagland said. “Who has done more for that than Barack Obama?”

Aagot Valle, a left-wing Norwegian politician who joined the Nobel panel this year, also dismissed suggestions that Obama was undeserving of the honor.

“Don’t you think that comments like that patronize Obama? Where do these people come from?” Valle said from the coastal city of Bergen. “Well, of course, all arguments have to be considered seriously. I’m not afraid of a debate on the Peace Prize decision. That’s fine.”

World leaders have reacted positively to Obama’s Nobel in most cases, the committee said, with much of the criticism coming from the media and Obama’s political rivals.

“I take note of it. My response is only the judgment of the committee, which was unanimous,” Jagland said.

In announcing the award Friday, the committee, whose members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, applauded the change in global mood brought by Obama’s calls for peace and cooperation. They also praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease U.S. conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.

The White House declined comment on the Nobel judge’s latest statements.

However, Obama expressed surprise and humility at Friday’s news conference, saying the prize should be considered not a “recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

Nobel Peace Prize selections have often been surrounded by fierce debate. Controversial awards include the 1994 prize shared by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for Mideast peace efforts, as well as the joint prize to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho for a 1973 cease-fire agreement. The Vietnam War continued for two more years.

So the Nobel jury “expected that there would be a discussion” about Obama’s award, said Kaci Kullman Five, a former Conservative Party parliamentarian and longtime Nobel committee member.

Valle said the criticism shouldn’t overshadow important issues raised by Obama’s Nobel.

“Of course I expected disagreement and debate on … giving him the prize,” she said. “But what I want now is that we seriously raise a discussion regarding nuclear disarmament.”

Photo: President Barack Obama