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Wartime President Accepts Peace Prize with an ‘American Speech’

December 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Just days after announcing an escalation in Afghanistan, President Obama traveled to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Jim Lehrer speaks with a panel of experts for reactions and perspective on the president's task in Oslo.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama’s address about war and peace, as he formally received the Nobel Prize today in Norway.

Judy Woodruff begins our coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president walked into the city hall of Oslo a wartime leader on hand to accept the most prestigious prize bestowed on peacemakers. It was a paradox not lost on him.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander in chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just last week, Mr. Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, on top of 21,000 he sent earlier this year. That tension between his actions as commander in chief and his advocacy of peace animated much of the 36-minute address.

BARACK OBAMA: We are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president acknowledged, as he did when the prize was announced in October, that he doesn’t claim to have earned the award based on his brief time in office.

BARACK OBAMA: Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He repeatedly cited Dr. Martin Luther King, who won the Peace Prize in 1964, and King’s inspiration, Mohandas Gandhi. But he said, at times, a head of state must depart from their nonviolent philosophy.

BARACK OBAMA: I can’t be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and can’t 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 can’t convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Developing his theme, Mr. Obama forcefully defended the notion of just war and the United States’ role in the world.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president cited numerous threats to that global security, in particular the Islamist extremism behind the attacks of September 11.

BARACK OBAMA: These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the end, Mr. Obama said, it is that faith and the faith that the human condition can be bettered that should be uppermost.

BARACK OBAMA: For, if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. Let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.

JIM LEHRER: We get three views of the president’s speech now from the reverend James Forbes, senior minister emeritus at the Riverside Church in New York — he is a longtime pacifist — presidential historian, “NewsHour” regular Michael Beschloss, and Joseph Bottum, former literary editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, now editor of First Things, a magazine about religion and public life.

Reverend Forbes, a Peace Prize a few days after escalating a war. How well did the president explain himself?

REV. JAMES FORBES, senior minister emeritus, Riverside Baptist Church: I think the president explains himself very well.

He shows, number one, that he understands the complexity and even the contradiction that would seem to be present when a war is going on, and yet he’s receiving the Peace Prize. I think he adequately explains why the two of these elements don’t cancel out each other, but they reflect two aspects which are essential in actually pursuing peace.

So, I see him in this speech doing the delicate balance that I suspect we can get used to seeing throughout his tenure, that is, looking at this side, that side, but seeking to find the golden mean.

Now, as a guy who has been so much for peace that I say that war defies every one of the Ten Commandments, yet I respect that he’s teaching us how a commander in chief has to work through those complexities to advance the very prospect of peace.

JIM LEHRER: Joseph Bottum, do you agree that the president managed a delicate balance?

JOSEPH BOTTUM, editor, First Things: Well, he certainly got both elements there. It was a lovely speech. It was high-minded. It was well-crafted.

It was utterly incoherent, but I’m not sure that anything could have solved the problem that he faced. This is, after all, a man accepting a Peace Prize while he is at war. And rhetoric won’t really fix what logic says is broken.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s the incoherence that you think he just underlined, rather than dealt with?

JOSEPH BOTTUM: He certainly strove, rhetorically, to reach some kind of resolution. The speech had elements of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sort of Christian Realism in it: We live in a fallen world. Violence is sometimes necessary to oppose violence.

And then, at the same time, it had kind of standard, old-fashioned, liberal, progressive elements in it: We’re getting better. Those barbarians used to go to war. People used to war in the name of God. We see beyond that. We’re getting better and better and better.

Those analyses and those justifications for talking about war are incoherent. They won’t really go together. And the rhetorical flourish that President Obama brought to it isn’t really going to put them together in any coherent way.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, do you see it the same way, that rhetoric is — can only solve a certain number of things, and those didn’t get solved today?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Yes, well, that’s always true in life, I think. But my guess is that maybe a couple of people on the Nobel Committee wanted to take their prize back after hearing this speech, because my guess is, they expected to hear a lot about Gandhi and King today, not very much about a just war, to which Barack Obama devoted a lot of space.

And I think the fascinating thing, as you watch this guy, he’s come to the presidency with probably less settled views on war and peace than certainly anyone in the last 50 years.

Go back to…

JIM LEHRER: You mean based on what he said before he became president?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, and also without a long history in national security.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Now, you go back to 2002, when he gave his famous speech against the Iraq war in Chicago, said, I’m not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars, didn’t mention Afghanistan as a war he might be in favor of. The only two he mentioned were the Civil War and World War II.

He’s evolving all the time. And I think, in a way, he’s becoming more and more — at least not inclined to use force, but at least open to that. One other thing. I think there’s a political imperative. He knows at some level of his mind what happens to a president who in his first year sounds a little bit too peace-loving and too trusting of perhaps the other side.

Jimmy Carter in 1977 gave a famous speech at Notre Dame saying that America had been held back by our inordinate fear of communism. Two years later, the Soviets go into Afghanistan, and people said, you know, Carter was naive. Obama is determined that he’s not going to be caught like that.

JIM LEHRER: Reverend Forbes, picking up on that, your own views aside, do you think that what President Obama said about war and peace is an accurate reflection of what basically the majority of the American people feel about war and peace?

REV. JAMES FORBES: It is difficult to assess the majority today.


REV. JAMES FORBES: But I do believe that Obama, President Obama, has listened to both perspectives, and that he thinks that, in what he said today, he both honors and respects the perspectives on both sides, but for the interests, best interests of this country, I think the road that he’s taking is one that he’s convinced represents the best combined interests of the United States at this time.

And a guy on the left, like me, I just think we have to work harder to make sure that President Obama is listening to our more progressive and even pacifistic perspectives, as the right may be engaged in another side.

I think he is a president who listens, and, in the light of what he has listened to in terms of the science of the possible, he thinks he’s struck it pretty much as close to that tightrope as is possible, given the complexity.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Michael, though, that this — that President Obama may not have had these views until he was confronted with the reality of war as president of the United States?

REV. JAMES FORBES: I believe that is correct.

I believe, clearly, that he is a Niebuhrian, and that he understands moral ambiguity. He’s always understood that. But you really don’t know what the — the pressures that come from both sides, what they are like until you sit in that Oval Office.

I have been in positions where I looked from a distance. I do this. I do that.

It is only when you are sitting there that you have to wrestle with, which is the better approach, not the — not perfect, but which is the better approach at this time? I think — I think that’s the way he approaches it. And I think he did a pretty good job of doing what could be done. Given the degree of difficulty of the dive, even though there was a little splash, incoherent, somebody else says…


REV. JAMES FORBES: … I think we give him a good grade.

JIM LEHRER: Give him a good grade, Joseph Bottum?

JOSEPH BOTTUM: Yes. This was a very American speech.

JIM LEHRER: Very American.

JOSEPH BOTTUM: There was much in this speech that John F. Kennedy could have said. There was much in this speech that George Bush could have said, and, in fact, did say in his second inaugural address: We’re not in favor of war.

JIM LEHRER: Which George Bush?

JOSEPH BOTTUM: And, yet, war is here.


JOSEPH BOTTUM: This is a very American thing to do.

In fact, the kind of peak moment for these American tropes appeared in that interesting passage, where he said that he rejects the false choice between a realism that only looks at self-interest and an idealism that would have us go abroad seeking to impose our values on others.

He said, no, what I believe in — and then he launched into a laundry list of what everybody in the world conceives of as American values, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, economic freedom for financial development, democracy. These are the things that he was insisting somehow transcend the division between idealism and realism.

Well, that’s a pretty idealistic laundry list. But it’s also very American. It’s exactly what John F. Kennedy said. And it’s exactly what George W. Bush said.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Michael? As a matter of history, this was an American speech? You heard…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, he actually quoted John Kennedy at American University in ’63, a speech that was called a peace speech with an opening to the Soviets, so I think that’s right.

But it also underscored for me this almost agonizing balancing act that Barack Obama is trying to carry off, because here he is on one side, perhaps the dominant wing of his party, always anti-war, they’re rather unhappy about the fact that he’s sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and, then on the other side, perhaps led by Dick Cheney, a movement that is essentially saying, Barack Obama is shutting down Guantanamo, and he’s ending things that he calls torture; all this is going to make us weaker.

And they will say, if God forbid there’s ever any kind of an attack on American interests, that Obama encouraged this. So, here he is trying to do all these things at once. And I think all those things were in the speech.

JIM LEHRER: Joe Bottum, do you agree, too, that — would you agree there’s some politics at work here, as well as morality and all these other things we have been talking about?

JOSEPH BOTTUM: For the president of the United States, there is always politics at work. That’s what it means to be the president. So, of course you’re right. And that only contributes to the kind of intellectual incoherence of the speech.

The question, I think, which the Reverend Forbes brought out is, are we actually going to see any practical result from this, for politics is the science of the practical? This can be incoherent at some high level, at the high level at which this speech was pitched. Is it actually going to issue in a practical threading of that needle, of finding those two sides and finding a way between them?

I’m not sure. And I don’t think so. I think the speech actually promised concrete action which is going to be incoherent, as reflective of the principles, the incoherent principles, expressed in the speech.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Reverend Forbes? Incoherent action is probably going to follow an incoherent speech?

REV. JAMES FORBES: Well, my thinking is that, with respect to Obama, President Obama, he’s the guy who knows how to tack his way. So, he’s headed, I believe, towards a more just and democratic society, security around the world.

How he gets there will probably not please either side most of the time. I think he will go this way, that way, but I think his eyes are on the prize of a less bellicose, less warring world, a more peaceful approach, when that’s possible, but keeping the powder dry, if necessary.

And I think that’s — it will look inherent — incoherent. I think there’s a method to the madness, even if it appears that way.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Michael, briefly, as a matter of history, is this speech going to be remembered, and does it deserve to be?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it will be as a moment that shows what Barack Obama was thinking about war and peace in 2009, which may be very different from the way he thinks about it four years from now or eight years from now.

But, you know, one thing that’s arresting about Obama is to a degree that is more than most other political figures, when he talks, it really reflects what’s in his brain. And, in this case, I think, if it seems ambiguous, it’s because it is.

JIM LEHRER: He is ambiguous.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Here’s a guy sending 30,000 to Afghanistan at the same time he’s talking about drawing down. These decisions have not yet been made, and this speech actually reflected that.


Gentlemen, all three, thank you very much.