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.”
Obama used all of his gifts of intellect and oratory to define the use of war in an age of terror. He drew on the lessons of history and what he called “the purpose of faith” on how best to achieve lasting peace at a pivotal point in world history when we are confronted by the swirling threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
“Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” Obama said.
But Obama also challenged the world to join America and all nations in having the courage to enforce the international institutions that seek to uphold international law as a way to avoid conflict.
He said, “It is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”
What made the speech more than just lofty oratory was the way in which he presented a list of deliverables that he will need to achieve to deserve the award he has already received. And what made it resonant was the way in which he captured the hope and hard work that goes on every day in every corner of the world in trying to work toward peace:
“So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he’s outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.”
“Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on earth.”
What made the speech historic and more than just well-crafted words on paper was the fact that Obama, like Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, has a once-in-a-generation ability to clearly express the challenges we face at a turning point of history. And sometimes America and the world need that kind of clarity to cut through the fog and the shadows of complex challenges, and to stay on course by allowing ourselves to be guided by our highest ideals.
As Obama said, "Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice."