Feature

Obama in Oslo: A president’s evolving worldview

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama surprised more than a few people with his pragmatic view of military action in response to evil.  

Well that was a pleasant surprise, said William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. When President Obama flew to Oslo last week to accept his undeserved Nobel Peace Prize, many of us were braced for more of his reflexive pandering to the pacifist, anti-American Euro-elites. But he started his speech by admitting that his achievements were “slight” compared with previous peace prize winners, and then, to the evident dismay of his European audience, launched into an unapologetic, “hard-headed” defense of the war in Afghanistan and military action in response to evil. “There will be times when nations will find use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” Obama declared. The “ideals” of pacifists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. must guide us, Obama said, but as a head of state he cannot be guided by their examples alone. “Evil does exist in the world,” he said. “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms.”

At times, Obama actually sounded like George Bush, said John Dickerson in Slate.com, which is ironic given that he was awarded the peace prize mainly for not being George Bush. But this speech contained a complexity of thought far beyond Bush’s capabilities. Obama also spoke of “engagement” with rogue regimes as a preferable alternative to war—even if that approach “lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.” More important, he specifically denounced his predecessor’s use of torture and secret prisons, said The New York Times in an editorial. “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend,” Obama said.

While Obama served up something for both liberals and conservatives, said James Carroll in The Boston Globe, this was no mere exercise in split-the-difference politics. What he was offering here was a candid look at the workings of his own mind, as he balances the ideals of his youth with the realism forced on him by his election. War, he said, is a “human tragedy” and “an expression of human folly.” But the world, he said, has not yet sufficiently evolved to a point at which war can be realistically abandoned. This emerging Obama doctrine is as much theology as it is policy, said George Packer in The New Yorker. Human perfection is not possible, Obama said, but we are obliged nonetheless to work toward it with clear-eyed, even ruthless, pragmatism, accepting whatever progress is possible.

Pardon me if I’m not cheering, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. Obama may have sounded “philosophical, contemplative, and intellectual,” but the bottom line is that he insisted that the U.S. has the “right” to wage war “unilaterally,” even if we face no attack or imminent threat. My fellow liberals need to come out of denial: Their hero has “put a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal policies.” Obama’s move to the center was inevitable, said Robert Kagan in The Washington Post. After a year in office, Obama has gained a far broader perspective “about the way the world works,” with North Korea and Iran spitting on his peaceful overtures, China coldly rejecting any talk about human rights, and the global Islamic jihad shaking the foundations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama is evolving into a “hawkish Democrat” in the mold of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, and in Oslo, he put the world on notice.

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