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Opinion: Obama defines the use of war in an age of terror

Obama's Nobel acceptance speech was a self-effacing and deeply personal exploration of "just war."

Nobel Peace Prize laureate U.S. President Barack Obama participates in the Nobel Peace Prize Signing Ceremony at Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2009. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

BOSTON — When U.S. President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he joined giants of history such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.

He became one of only three sitting U.S. presidents ever to receive the honor along with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

But he also faced the haunting memory of past recipients who were given the award only to see their promises of peace crash on the rocks of reality and splinter into horrific violence.

In 1994, the prize was shared by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Rabin was assassinated the following year by an Israeli settler opposed to peace if it meant a compromise on land with Palestinians. And Arafat failed to lead the Palestinian people to peace and instead retreated back to conflict and terror.

One sign held up by a man amid a small crowd of protesters on the streets of Oslo said it all: “You won it. Now earn it.”

Indeed, Obama has much work to do, as he pointed out in a speech that was a powerful, eloquent “lecture,” as it is formally referred to. I would even dare to say it was a historic address.

I’ve covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and many insurgencies and acts of terrorism for the last 15 years and I have never heard anyone more clearly and powerfully articulate what it means to conduct a “just war” or to strive for a “just peace” amid the dark and shadowy struggles against terrorism, a struggle made more ominous by the nuclear threat.

Despite the soaring rhetoric, a loud irony echoed inside the hallowed halls of Oslo City Hall as Obama was made a Nobel Prize laureate.

Here is a president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize while he presides over two wars, one of which he just last week vowed to escalate dramatically. But then again the Nobel Prizes were founded on irony. The man whose fortune funds the prize, 19th-century Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, was an arms manufacturer who invented dynamite.

Obama didn't dodge all that irony that hung in the room.

“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated,” he said to the gathering of dignitaries inside Oslo City Hall.

“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks,” he said, setting up a speech that sought to explore the conundrum of war and peace in the post-Sept. 11 world.

It was a self-effacing and deeply personal exploration of what is a “just war” and what is a “just peace.”