After his disappointing performance at West Point, Obama rediscovered his oratorical touch in Oslo and accepted his Nobel prize with a fine speech. West Point was a much more difficult assignment (and a more important one, unfortunately): he had to announce and explain a policy that much of the country and most of his own party disagrees with. The task in Norway was merely to give a good speech: to accept with grace and due modesty an honour he does not deserve. He did it as well as it could be done. He was at his engaging and thought-provoking best–unafraid to push his audience in uncomfortable directions, very much an Obama trait.
He did not glide around the awkwardness of the occasion. He acknowledged it and dealt with it. He was straightforward and unembarrassed about his lack of achievements–no taint of false modesty in the way he expressed it. The award was a “call to action”. A little more to my surprise, he confronted head on the oddity of the peace prize going to a leader who had just announced a major escalation of a war. Still more to my surprise, he dwelt on this at some length, putting his decision in the context of “just war” theory. He defended his approach more forthrightly than he had at West Point. A good part of the speech was a lecture on why wars still have to be fought. Not an obvious theme when you’re accepting the Nobel peace prize.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.
But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.
Some of that had a familiar ring, according to Robert Kagan and Walter Russell Mead. As Mead remarked,
Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was a carefully reasoned defense of a foreign policy that differs very little from George Bush’s. He is winding down one war, escalating a second, and stepping up the pressure on Iran. He is asserting America’s sovereign right to unilateral action in self defense while expressing the hope that this right will not need to be exercised.
If Bush had said these things the world would be filled with violent denunciations. When Obama says them, people purr.
There’s nothing wrong with making people purr.