The predictability of Obama's Nobel speech
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee played host Thursday to a classic Barack Obama moment, albeit likely not the one it anticipated. Obama delivered a blockbuster speech. Acknowledging the tension of a president at war accepting a prize for peace, he defended the necessity of force to build a more just world, while paying respect to the principles of diplomacy, non-violence and the aspirations of lasting peace. He squared the circle, as he so often does, leaving some of his critics perplexed and some of his supporters dismayed.
The Nobel committee members must have been surprised. Surely, they expected more about international law and diplomacy and less about the use of force.Yet the entirety of the Nobel Prize saga -- the premature nomination, the award, the speech and the aftermath -- followed a familiar script.
First came the near-messianic adulation by Obama's fans. Based on a nomination submitted a mere two weeks into this presidency, the Nobel committee wrote: "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future."
Then, the celebration, complete with gratuitous conservative-bashing. Slamming the previous administration, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland noted in his presentation speech Thursday, "The U.S.A. is now paying its bills to the U.N. It is joining various committees, and acceding to important conventions. International standards are again respected. Torture is forbidden; the president is doing what he can to close Guantanamo."
Then, the president's turn. He laid out a pragmatic vision not readily caricatured as either liberal or conservative. "There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago -- 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.'... But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."
And then the world responds. In Norway, there were pre-planned demonstrations of several thousand anti-war protesters. (And, according to a poll by the Norwegian newspaper Verden Gang, 53 percent of Norwegians thought it was "impolite" that Obama didn't stick around through Friday for the Will Smith-headlined concert in his honor.)
At home, disillusioned left wingers continued to beat their drums, the Huffington Post afire with frustration over the troop escalation in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, right-wingers offered reminders that the president shouldn't have received the award in the first place, even if the speech was well-received.
This is how all of the first year of Obama's presidency has gone. The adulation, the expectations, the pragmatic approach, the disillusionment on the left and hostility on the right. And through it all, the forward march of the president.
While President Bush hewed too closely to his Republican base, President Obama has not been afraid to ignore left-wing admirers. Even so, he sounded a familiar echo of his predecessor at Thursday's press conference. "The goal is not to win a popularity contest or to get an award -- even one as esteemed as the Nobel Peace Prize," the president said. "The goal is to advance American interests, make ourselves a continuing force for good in the world. If I'm successful in those tasks then hopefully some of the criticism will subside, but that's not really my concern. And if I'm not successful then all the praise and the awards in the world won't disguise that fact."
Unlike Bush, Obama listens to allies and critics, which is a sounder approach to decision making. But once he makes up his mind, he has the ability to tune out the distractions, to stay the course with dignity, despite the enormous ruckus surrounding him. He knows that while the Nobel committee may not judge him on his accomplishments, history will.