The Nobel War Prize

With his Nobel speech, Obama shows an idealistic tough-mindedness.

Also in Slate: Fred Kaplan praises Obama’s speech for its delicate balance between lofty ideals and hard realism. Christopher Beam analyzes Obama’s use of “false choices” as a rhetorical device.

President Obama speaks after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize by making the case for war. He didn’t just nod to the two wars he presides over. He owned them. He spent more than half of his speech making the case for wars fought in the service of peace. If his speech last week on sending more troops to Afghanistan seemed reluctant, today’s was assertive.

Perhaps Obama is better when he has something to push against. When he is actively promoting a specific administration policy—in Afghanistan, say, or on health care—the results can be workmanlike or uninspired. Present him with something unexpected, though—whether at Fort Hood, about the racist remarks of his former minister, or from the Nobel Committee—and Obama can deliver a brilliant speech. The Nobel Peace Prize was an honor dropped in his lap, maybe an embarrassment and certainly a distraction. How would he address the fact that he was accepting a peace prize while commanding armies in two wars? How would he address the fact that he was given the award before he actually, you know, did anything? As Obama himself said, in the opening of the speech, his accomplishments are “slight.”

With this speech, Obama achieved something that people also expect of his presidency: He made something out of arriving too early.

If Obama was given the award because of someone else’s agenda, in the speech he made it about his doctrine. (I bet the two didn’t match.) There were a lot of lines in this speech that George Bush could have given—which is ironic, given that, as so many observed (including many within the White House), Obama was given the award for not being George Bush. “All responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace,” he said. He made the point repeatedly, which is probably why it was more than halfway though the speech before he got his first applause. “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” He defined soldiers as “wagers of peace.” (That kind of wordplay is sure to make some of his supporters deeply uncomfortable, but, then again, the peace prize was founded by the inventor of dynamite.)

As much as Obama talked about war, however, it was not a speech just about that. It was a speech about complexity and hard choices between the need for wars and the desire for peace. “Part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths,” he said, framing the complexity in personal terms between his role as a head of state (who sometimes must wage war) and his personal desire for peace (which matches the aspirations of nonviolent heroes like Martin Luther King). “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there’s nothing weak—nothing passive—nothing naive—in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”

His critics have claimed that this obsession with complexity equals weakness. After this speech, that’s a harder case to make. Just as you can recognize complexity yet appreciate the need for action, so can you debate for weeks about Afghanistan and still send 30,000 troops.

The president also deprived his critics of the argument that he stoops to European liberals. This was the clubhouse of European liberals. According to the caricature of Obama, he would use the opportunity to apologize for America. And yet this is what he said: “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.”

But if the United States has done the hard business of fighting and dying, then it must also do other hard and nonviolent things. Just as he was sounding like a neoconservative, Obama made the case conservatives won’t like at all: We must engage with our enemies. “I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation,” he said, then proceeded to cite three skillful practitioners of engagement: Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Pope John Paul—conservative icons all.

The speech also had tidy turns of phrase. “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God.” In his penultimate paragraph he sketched a picture of the outgunned soldier, the anti-government protestor, and the poor mother in the same mural. It was a tiny mural, but reflected the larger aspirations of the speech.

We’ve come to expect high talk from Obama since his star turn on the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. What was different in Oslo, Norway, was his voice. “I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage,” he said. Obama’s critics—and his supporters as well—might have expected a different speech from the person who gave the anti-war speech Obama did in 2002, when he was a mere state senator. He’s a different person now—not so much because he is a Nobel laureate but because he is, as he mentioned twice in the speech, a head of state. As his circumstances have changed, so, too, perhaps, have his views. He is a palimpsest president who’s writing and speaking change as circumstances warrant. Now that’s complex.

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