Washington Matters


Obama Defends War Effort
in Nobel Peace Prize Speech

Mark Willen

Obama had a fine line to walk as a war president accepting a peace prize. He did it pretty well.



President Obama used his Nobel Peace Prize speech to stand up proudly for the United States, both for what it has done on behalf of world peace and prosperity and for what it believes in. The speech should silence, at least briefly, those who accuse the president of being an apologist for his country, and it should, at least briefly, make more Americans proud of their country and the president who represents it.

Obama began humbly, acknowledging that he has no accomplishments to merit the award and recognizing the irony of a peace prize going to a commander in chief of a military in the midst of two wars, one of which is being escalated. But he went on to defend the U.S. military action in a lengthy section of the speech explaining why some wars are “just” and need to be fought: “There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Far from apologizing for the U.S. role, he reminded his Oslo audience that the rest of the world owes the American people a huge debt. “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,” he said. “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.”

Obama used that reminder to strengthen his argument that the rest of the world must help a lot more than it has. Acknowledging that the U.S. cannot do it alone, he demanded more material assistance in the war in Afghanistan.

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Obama went on to acknowledge the struggle between war and peace, and the difficulty of striking the right balance. Obama’s speech clearly reflected his personal struggles as a reluctant warrior. Listening, one could feel the loneliness that must accompany any president who has to send troops into battle, knowing that many may not return. His speech also tried to reconcile idealism and realism – the idealism of the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jr. and the realism of the war president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He spoke as a man who, thanks to the efforts of the former, now sits in the seat of the latter.

Obama went on to speak about the importance of human rights, even in wartime. He said moral nations must always act morally, even when it may be a setback to war efforts. He made a strong pitch for attempting diplomatic solutions before using force, but stressed that steps like sanctions only work when the world stands together. He paid tribute to the people who bravely risk their lives to march against repressive regimes, especially the protesters in Iran.

His speech is sure to attract plenty of criticism; many were poised to dismiss it because they don’t believe he deserved the award, a fact he acknowledged at the outset. Yet his speech is likely to stand the test of time. The principles he laid out can guide future generations as well as our own. But Obama himself will be judged on how well he puts them into practice. In the immediate future, that means winning material support for waging war and achieving tangible results from diplomacy aimed at preventing it.



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