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Obama's Nobel Acceptance Speech: Convincing Or Rehash Of Old Arguments?

  • Andrew Tully

WASHINGTON -- Some observers have called U.S. President Barack Obama's Nobel acceptance speech on December 10 a moral explanation for why he is escalating the conflict in Afghanistan, while others have dismissed it as another American leader justifying the case for war.

As he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Obama said peace is always preferable to war. But sometimes, he added, war is necessary.

"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 nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies," Obama said.

"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."

Were those the words of a president trying to ease the conscience of the Nobel Committee as it handed him the prestigious peace prize just nine days after he announced a major escalation of war?

Judith Kipper, a longtime foreign policy analyst with the Institute of World Affairs, doesn't think so. She says it was important for Obama to make sure the world understands why he's sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

"He inherited two really bad situations [the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan], two places where U.S. forces have been used but were mismanaged, to the detriment of the local people, to the detriment of the U.S. military, and U.S. foreign policy," Kipper said.

"So I think he is acting responsibly to withdraw from one and to try to have a rational policy toward the other."

Since Obama announced the escalation, support in the United States for his Afghanistan strategy has increased about 10 percent among Americans, to 48 percent, according to the latest "New York Times/CBS News" poll.

His biggest supporters are members of the opposition Republican Party, and Independents. Members of his own Democratic Party are much less convinced that sending more troops is the right way forward.

Changing Minds?


But will Obama's explanation of his new strategy change the minds of Europeans, many of whom oppose the war in Afghanistan?

"People who like [Obama] and support him are going to feel that he was clear. Other people who don't like him, who oppose his policies, will be against [his plan in Afghanistan]," Kipper said.

"I don't think there's anything new about that. He's in a position, really, where he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, but he should be given the benefit of the doubt until we see otherwise."

Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, agrees that Obama's Oslo address probably won't change any minds, but for a different reason.

He sees the president's reasoning as a tired repetition of the arguments that American presidents have been giving for the past half-century.

"You heard [President] Lyndon Johnson say the same thing: 'We have no selfish aims in Vietnam, we do this reluctantly in order to keep the peace, protect freedom' -- whatever. It's the kind of thing you've heard for decades now. [Obama's speech] was a little less ringing than [President George W.] Bush," Lichtman said.

"Bush was talking about proclaiming freedom throughout the world and fighting for freedom, but I could not tell you how what [Obama] said was any different in terms of a doctrine than what Bush has been following."

Rather than try to justify the escalation of the Afghan war, Lichtman argues, Obama should have spoken more of peace, as another sitting U.S. president did when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

"What I think he should have done was what [President] Teddy Roosevelt did. What he did that was really interesting and, I think, made his speech stand out is: He actually laid out very specific proposals for a lasting structure of peace. In fact, he foreshadowed the League of Nations -- he called it a League of Peace," Lichtman said.

"I think that should have been the headline for Obama, some new initiative, something that would catch our attention on how to achieve a lasting peace. I didn't see that here."

Instead, Lichtman says, he saw Obama trying, unconvincingly, to portray himself as a man of peace while sending ever more young men and women off to war.
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