Citing 'just war,' Obama accepts peace prize
After escalating the Afghan conflict, he notes contradiction

By Michael A. Fletcher and Scott Wilson
Friday, December 11, 2009

OSLO -- President Obama delivered an impassioned rationale for war in accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, a paradox that he acknowledged, even as he defended the United States' 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 in Oslo 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 sending 30,000 more 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, N.Y. 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 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and called himself a "living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence," Obama also recalled the halting of Hitler's army during World War II to argue that, sometimes, only force can resolve injustice and protect civilians. In an echo of 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, which he delivered to about 1,000 people, including Norway's royal family and top government officials.

But the president also used the address 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.

The award consists of a diploma and a gold medal bearing the etched face of Alfred Nobel, a wealthy chemist who invented dynamite and endowed the prize more than a century ago. It also carries $1.4 million in cash, 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, the development specialty of Obama's late mother.

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

Some of his collective appeals for global unity are beginning to show some tentative results, including a more concerted approach by China, India and the United States to address climate change, a stronger international response to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, and NATO's recent pledge of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. But the president warned that the "old architecture" that the United States helped establish after World War II -- from the Untied Nations to global treaties -- is "buckling under the weight of new threats," including transnational terrorism and the rising instance of civil war.

Since taking office with a pledge to turn the page on the Bush administration's unilateralism, Obama has been criticized by conservatives for attempting to engage American adversaries, including those with poor human rights records, with fresh diplomacy.

But on Thursday, he singled out the governments of Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran as being politically repressive, while warning that "human rights cannot be about exhortation alone" and "at times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy."

In remarks to reporters before his address, Obama reiterated his commitment to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011, a time frame endorsed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but criticized by some as unrealistic.

"The pace at which that takes place, the slope of a drawdown, how it occurs tactically, those are all going to be conditions-based," Obama said. "We're not going to see some sharp cliff, some precipitous drawdown."

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who appeared alongside Obama, announced that his country would increase its financial contribution to the Afghan police and military to $110 million over the next four years -- a response to Obama's call for international coalition partners to provide more troops and money to the effort.

"You're beginning to see some green shoots from Obama's foreign policy," said Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff. "It's hard work. But it's far better to be working in partnership to advance America's interests."

In explaining his views on the "justified" use of force, Obama called for strict adherence to international law, rejecting the concept of "holy war" and urging mankind to "reach for the world that ought to be."

He went on to say that the United States "must remain a standard-bearer" in upholding the laws of war, "even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules." He drew applause when he declared, "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend."

He added: "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."

Wilson reported from Washington. Staff writer William Branigin in Washington also contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company