Analysis: Obama is wartime president accepting Nobel Peace Prize

President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, a week after announcing his plan to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

If any further evidence were needed of the distance between running for president and being president, it came Thursday in Oslo as President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The politician who had sought the White House as the champion of the antiwar forces in his party spoke as the commander in chief, offering a principled defense of waging just wars.

The incongruity of a president accepting the peace prize at a time when his nation is conducting battles in Iraq and Afghanistan was lost on no one, most notably Obama. He confronted this head-on.

The Nobel ceremonies came little more than a week after Obama announced that he would be sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. As he put it starkly, "Some will kill and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict."

Seven years ago, in a now-famous speech on the eve of a congressional vote to give then-President George W. Bush the authority to take the country to war against Iraq, Obama, who was an Illinois state senator at the time, said: "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

That statement was a precursor to what Obama said Thursday in Oslo, but the 2002 speech has been remembered only for its vigorous criticism of the pending conflict in Iraq as well as Obama's prescient description of what might happen if the United States invaded.

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," he said. "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda."

His speech in Oslo may be remembered for his argument in favor of war as an instrument designed to secure peace. Obama recalled the nonviolent examples of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He acknowledged that he is a direct beneficiary of what nonviolent protest achieved for African Americans. He said, "There's nothing weak -- nothing passive, nothing naive -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

But then came the admission that his decisions are shaped by a perspective that is a long distance from that of those men, as well as from that of a young state senator from Illinois or underdog presidential candidate. "As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation," he said, "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. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world."

Obama drew some criticism after his speech at West Point for not showing passion in defense of his escalation or offering the rhetoric of victory at all costs that marked Bush's advocacy of using force after Sept. 11, 2001. If anything, Obama's speech in Oslo was a more eloquent and direct statement of why he believes a larger war in Afghanistan is necessary and just.

But it was not full-throated. It was instead in keeping with Obama's lawyerly approach to difficult issues and to his belief that the either/or choices are often false choices and that the truth lies somewhere in between. As he put it, "The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another: that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy."

In Chicago seven years ago, Obama couched his opposition to a war in Iraq in terms that allowed room for him to emerge as a potential commander in chief who would not shrink from using force as necessary.

In Oslo, he shaded his defense of war with hard-headed words about the difficulty of waging peace. "I understand why war is not popular," he said, "but I know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice."

What he may not have imagined in 2002 is that it would be left to him to finish what Bush started -- not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan. Here were his words that day in October in Chicago: "You want a fight, President Bush? Let's finish the fight with bin Laden and al-Qaeda through effective, coordinated intelligence and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings."

At the time, his prescription for finishing the fight with Osama bin Laden did not include an explicit call to arms. The war in Afghanistan was then a year old, and although bin Laden was still at large, the action would soon shift to Iraq. A military escalation in Afghanistan was not on anyone's radar.

Now Obama is commander in chief, and Afghanistan is his battle. Finishing the fight with bin Laden and al-Qaeda is his responsibility. In Oslo, he confronted all those realities, bearing burdens that no candidate ever does.

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