PRESIDENT Barack Obama entered the pantheon of Nobel Peace Prize winners yesterday with humble words, acknowledging his own few accomplishments while delivering a robust defence of war and promising to use the prestigious award to “reach for the world that ought to be”.
A wartime president honoured for peace, Obama became the first sitting US president in 90 years and the third ever to win the prize – some say prematurely. In this damp, chilly Nordic capital to pick it up, he and his wife, Michelle, whirled through a day filled with Nobel pomp and ceremony.
And yet Obama was staying here only about 24 hours and skipping the traditional second day of festivities. This miffed some in Norway, but reflects a White House that sees little value in extra pictures of the president, his poll numbers dropping at home, taking an overseas victory lap while thousands of US troops prepare to go off to war and millions of Americans remain jobless.
Just nine days after ordering 30,000 more US troops into battle in Afghanistan, Obama delivered a Nobel acceptance speech that he saw as a treatise on war’s use and prevention. He crafted much of the address himself and the scholarly remarks – at about 4,000 words – were nearly twice as long as his inaugural address.
In them, Obama refused to renounce war for his nation or under his leadership, saying defiantly that “I face the world as it is” and that he is obliged to protect and defend the United States.
“A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms,” he said. “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history.”
The president laid out the circumstances where war is justified – in self-defence, to come to the aid of an invaded nation and on humanitarian grounds, such as when civilians are slaughtered by their own government or a civil war threatens to engulf an entire region.
“The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it,” he said.
He also spoke bluntly of the cost of war, saying of the Afghanistan buildup he just ordered that “some will kill, some will be killed.”
“No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy,” he said.
He also stressed the need to fight war according to “rules of conduct” that reject torture and other methods. And he emphasised the need to exhaust alternatives to violence, using diplomatic outreach and sanctions with teeth to confront nations such as Iran or North Korea that defy international demands to halt their nuclear programmes or those such as Sudan, Congo or Burma that brutalise their citizens. “Let us reach for the world that ought to be. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”
In awarding the prize to Obama, the Nobel panel cited his call for a world free of nuclear weapons, for a more engaged US role in combating global warming, for his support of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy and for broadly capturing the attention of the world and giving its people “hope”.
The Nobel committee made its announcement in October when he wasn’t nine months on the job, recognising his aspirations more than his achievements.
Echoing the surprise that seemed the most common reaction to his win, Obama started his 36-minute speech by saying others who have done more and suffered more may better deserve the honour. “I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labours on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize... my accomplishments are slight.”
The list of Nobel peace laureates over the last 100 years includes transformative figures and giants of the world stage. They include heroes of the president, such as the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and others he has long admired, like George Marshall, who launched a postwar recovery plan for Europe.
Earlier, Obama had said the criticism might recede if he advances some of his goals. But, he added, proving doubters wrong is “not really my concern”.
“If I’m not successful, then all the praise in the world won’t disguise that fact,” he said.
The timing of the award ceremonies, coming so soon after Obama’s Afghanistan announcement, lent inspiration to peace activists. The president’s motorcade arrived at Oslo’s high-rise government complex for Obama’s meeting with Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg as a few dozen anti-war protesters gathered behind wire fences nearby. Dressed in black hoods and waving banners, the demonstrators banged drums and chanted anti-war slogans.
Greenpeace and anti-war activists planned larger demonstrations later. Protesters plastered posters around the city, featuring an Obama campaign poster altered to say, “Change?”
The debate at home over his Afghanistan decision also followed the president here. He told reporters that the July 2011 date he set for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to begin will not slip, but the pace of the full drawdown will be gradual and conditions-based.
The Nobel honour comes with a $1.4 million prize. The White House says Obama will give it to charities.
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