What Obama should say in his Nobel speech
Obama's speech in Oslo Thursday has as many potential pitfalls as his speech at West Point last week. Here's what he should—and shouldn't— say.
Have you ever accepted an invitation for an event months down the road -- and then kicked yourself as the appointed day drew near? I wonder if that’s what President Obama’s advisors are feeling now as the hour approaches for his Nobel prize acceptance address.
Especially after the president’s under-applauded (except by me!) West Point speech, the Nobel address presents a field of risks. He cannot afford to look more comfortable—or speak more convincingly —accepting an award in Europe than sending Americans into battle.
In the spirit of bipartisan helpfulness, let me propose three things the president should say in Oslo—and one he should eschew.
1) Salute the American servicemen. Over the decades, the Nobel Committee has often honored groups and entities, such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Atomic Energy Agency and even (incredibly) the United Nations. Yet there is one glaring and shameful omission: the fighting men and women who since 1941 have paid the blood price to keep peace and defend freedom around the world—Norway very much included.
On accepting the prize, President Obama said he interpreted the award "as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations." Good impulse. But that leadership has been earned and sustained and defended by American military power—and an American president on the verge of deploying that power should find room for an acknowledgement of the devoted Americans who serve and fight and sometimes die.
2) Salute his predecessors. When President Obama speaks at home, he often scores points off his Republican predecessor. It’s not graceful (and it’s an especially poor return to the grace shown Obama by George W. Bush), but it’s politics more or less as usual.
But in Oslo, Obama will face a very different reality. The three most recent American winners of the prize are Obama, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter. The message could hardly be more blatant. (Well, maybe a little more blatant: Where’s John Kerry’s prize?)
Unlike Carter and Gore, however, Barack Obama is a sitting president, the leader of the entire American nation, Republicans and Democrats alike. He cannot be party to any attempt by foreign persons to use their money and prestige to influence American policy. He cannot in any way accede to the suggestion that some American leaders are more peace-loving than others. He does not have to hit this chord hard. Just be sure somewhere in the address to include the phrase, "Past American presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George W. Bush . . . ."
3) Address the Afghan mission. Did the Nobel committee intend to create political difficulties for Obama—to entrap him into sharing its priorities or be subject to accusations of hypocrisy? Did they assume that he would never want to read a news story that opened, "Nobel Peace Prize Winner Barack Obama today authorized another round of missile attacks on Taliban-held villages"? Who knows? But if that thought did enter the minds of the five-member committee, three of them drawn from Norway’s left-of-center political parties, Obama ought to dispel it at once.
The international coalition’s campaign in Afghanistan is fully consistent with the highest ideals of world peace and security. Afghanistan is not some subordinate portion of Obama’s foreign policy, to be pushed into a corner while the spotlight plays over more cherished initiatives. It is the commitment that will define the success of this presidency’s international policy. The president should boldly champion his decision from the Nobel rostrum—and perhaps here deploy some of the eloquence he withheld from his West Point speech.
Now last–what the president should not say.
This may seem counterintuitive, but Obama should refrain in Oslo from any statement of feelings of unworthiness. The time for modesty occurred when the award was proposed—and the decision had to be made to accept or decline. Having accepted, Obama must now proceed through the ceremony as he said he would: not as Barack Obama, imperfect individual, but as the representative of America.
To say anything in Oslo of doubts or qualms would be abject: It would be to concede that the people who awarded him the prize are somehow the appropriate judges of American foreign policy and actions and that there exists some ongoing obligation on the president’s part to meet the expectations of the prize committee. There have been too many kow-tows to foreign leaders already: Let there be no more in Oslo. If Obama does feel the gap between the prize and his accomplishments (and he should!), he can better show his awareness of that incongruity by sobriety and restraint in the body of his address. To open with self-effacement only invites Golda Meir’s famous retort: "Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great."