December 11, 2009 in Nation/World

Obama’s Nobel speech offers ‘just war’ defense

Michael A. Fletcher And Scott Wilson Washington Post
Associated Press photo

President Barack Obama is applauded by Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

Prize money

The actual award for the Nobel Prize for Peace consists of a diploma and a gold medal bearing the etched face of Alfred Nobel, the wealthy chemist and inventor of dynamite who endowed the prize more than a century ago. It carries a $1.4 million cash award, which the White House has said Obama will donate to charity. At least some of the money, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has said, might go to a group focused on microfinance.

OSLO, Norway – President Barack Obama delivered an impassioned rationale for war in accepting the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace on Thursday, a paradox that he acknowledged, even as he defended America’s record abroad in promoting human rights, individual freedom and global security.

Just over a week after announcing an escalation of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, Obama spoke candidly to an audience that included European dignitaries and officials representing countries deeply opposed to the conflict.

He did not receive applause until more than halfway through his speech – and even then not for his defense of “just war” but for his decision to close the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and prohibit torture.

The remarks offered a lofty, ideological justification for his decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and stood in sharp contrast to the more technical argument he made in favor of escalation last week at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His audience reached beyond the vaulted ceilings of Oslo City Hall to electorates in the United States and Europe, where many believe the war is no longer worth fighting.

While the president invoked Martin Luther King Jr., and called himself “living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence,” Obama also recalled the advance of Hitler’s army during World War II to argue that, sometimes, only force can resolve injustice and protect civilian lives. In an echo of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he noted that “evil does exist in the world.”

“I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” Obama said in the speech, formally known as the Nobel Lecture. “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.”

The apparent contradiction of a wartime president accepting a prize for peace provided the fulcrum for Obama’s 36-minute acceptance speech.

During the speech, Obama reprised foreign policy themes that he has spelled out previously, including the importance of working through international organizations in an age of nuclear proliferation and environmental threats.

But Obama also used the speech to acknowledge the criticism that, less than a year into his presidency, he is undeserving of a prize that has been given to “Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela.”

After receiving the award with “great gratitude and great humility,” Obama reminded the audience that he is “at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage” and cited rights activists around the world who “have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice.”

“I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I,” he said.

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