Nobel Sentiments

President Barack Obama established his bona fides as a powerful and inspirational speaker with his memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. On the campaign trail and since taking office, Obama has delivered speeches on race relations, the economic crisis, health care reform and a host of other issues, almost always with eloquence and considerable rhetorical skill.

Yet perhaps the most challenging speeches in Obama’s career to date were his two most recent — his address to the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and his acceptance speech on receiving the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. With his honeymoon phase coming to an end in the face of multiple challenges both at home and abroad, Obama needed to assert a presidential presence in both tone and substance. To his credit, he succeeded admirably in both instances.


At West Point, he announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a significant increase, but short of the 40,000 requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. At the same time, Obama pledged to begin to draw down U.S. forces by June 2011, if conditions warrant. The President arrived at his decision after an intensive three-month study and countless meetings with his “War Council,” a process which his supporters praised and his detractors, like former Vice President Dick Cheney said was “dithering.” In fact, Obama deserves credit for taking the three months to thoroughly examine all of his options before making the grave decision to send more brave U.S. service men and women into harm’s way.

To his credit, Obama was also able to secure a commitment of an additional 7,000 troops from our NATO allies, bringing the total number of new forces almost into line with McChrystal’s request. The general has strongly endorsed Obama’s approach and has pledged that his troops “can and will” succeed in their new mission.

Obama faced an even more daunting task in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, in the face of criticism of the award by many who saw it as premature. He rose to the challenge, initially by acknowledging the sentiments of his detractors. He took note of the accomplishments of prior Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who was honored for brokering peace between Russia and Japan in 1905, and Woodrow Wilson, author of the “Fourteen Points” and the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I. He also cited the non-violence of both Indian leader Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

Most significantly, Obama confronted head on the criticism by anti-war groups that he did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in the immediate aftermath of deciding to escalate the number of troops in Afghanistan. The President made it clear that while he greatly admires the approach used by Gandhi and King, non-violence cannot be effectively used to confront the overwhelming evil and brutality of an Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Osama bin Laden. Just as many pacifists like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell supported military action against Hitler, so does President Obama believe that there is such a thing as a “just war.” The battle against the radical jihadist terrorist fringe of Islam is such a war.

The reactions to President Obama’s speeches and actions last week included both praise from unlikely sources and criticism from some of his erstwhile allies. Republicans Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both warmly praised Obama’s Oslo speech, with Gingrich calling it “historic.” Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, also supported the announcement of the Afghanistan surge. But in one of the truly most bizarre odd couplings, both far-right radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and radical leftist film maker Michael Moore denounced Obama’s Nobel speech. Limbaugh trashed nearly every word of the speech, including words like “a” and “the,” whereas Moore accused Obama of “drinking George W. Bush’s Kool-Aid.”

Limbaugh and Moore would never see it this way, but denunciation from both the radical right and left validates Obama’s words and approach as a centrist and rational approach to a daunting problem. If Obama had done nothing to respond to McChrystal’s request, he risked having the Taliban and Al Qaeda return to power in Afghanistan, which would have been a grave setback to U.S. and Western interests and protection of our citizens. At the same time, by indicating that our commitment to the war in Afghanistan is “not open-ended,” and stressing the he expects Afghan President Hamid Karzei to both eliminate corruption and work toward an indigenous security solution, he struck an appropriate balance.

Now that the President has made his decision, we join with Americans of all political perspectives in expressing the hope that the brave men and women being sent into harm’s way will prevail and return home on a timely basis with their goals accomplished, including greater safety for the American people and Western society.