Reaction To Obama's Nobel Speech

In his speech Thursday in Oslo while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama refused to renounce war, saying he was obliged to protect and defend the United States. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent for Newsweek and author of The Thirteen American Arguments, offer their insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now some reactions to the speech from Richard Haass, who used to be President Bush's head of policy planning at the State Department, from Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC, and first from Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. She calls the speech powerful in the way it confronted the paradox of receiving the peace prize just after escalating the Afghan war.

Ms. KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL (Editor and Publisher, The Nation): I take away from it that President Obama is an ethical realist. It was a speech grounded in realism with elements of idealism. And I, Robert, thought it was building on the quartet of major speeches he's given in this past year beginning to layout in Obama doctrine - speeches in Cairo, Prague, Moscow and Ankara. So, it was an important speech and directly you could see why the Nobel Committee awarded him this prize. It was a rebuke to the unilateralism, the jingoism of the Bush years. This speech had a humility and grace while confronting the paradoxes.

SIEGEL: But you seem to be resolving this conflict between the wartime president, who's escalated the U.S. operation in Afghanistan and the peace prize winner, and the speech about peace rather easily. I'm surprised. I'm surprised you're not more stuck on that one.

Ms. HEUVEL: One of the factors of life in America, I think, Robert, is complexity. And while I, and the magazine I edit, have been in full opposition to both the Bush administration and its war in Iraq and to the war it bequeathed the Obama administration and the war he is making his own, one also has to understand that there is a fight ahead, that no great change comes without struggle from below, which President Obama spoke of. And he spoke of those who truly have fought for change from below like Martin Luther King Jr.

And I think it is up to the people, not only in the United States, but this world, to push him to live up to the words he spoke in the speech which was a complex speech. It was a, kind of a speech that could be taught in a college course on just war and America's role in the world. And that's why I am both interested in its complexity, but I'm also aware of the fact that he is a war president who is presiding over the escalation of a war that this country need not fight to be more secure and that may endanger his role in the world that he seeks.

SIEGEL: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher of The Nation, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. HEUVEL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And now to Richard Haass who is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Haass, the speech by a wartime president receiving a peace prize, your sense, how did President Obama pull off that fairly tricky assignment?

Dr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Well, the shorthand is that he pulled it off and I think he pulled it off not just quite well, but extremely well. More broadly, I thought this was a really smart thoughtful speech where he essentially pointed out the complexities and the textures of the issue. And I thought people learned a lot if they listened closely.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you your sense of this event as a speech about international relations. President Obama, as he acknowledged, was given this prize as much in anticipation of what he is to do as in recognition of accomplishments. It's what he's said he will do. But saying this only is of prize-winning seriousness because he is the president of the United States. This prize has much to do with expectations of the role that the U.S. should play in the world.

Dr. HAASS: Oh, it's in some ways all about that and there's a history of that. On several occasions the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to say human rights activists not because necessarily of what they have accomplished but as a way of putting some wind behind their sails. What they maybe didn't bargain for, ironically enough, was the heavy dose of realism they got today. This was, in many ways, a speech that many of the previous presidents could have delivered, talking about the important contribution that U.S. foreign policy makes to the security of the world, speaking about evil in the world. This was pretty realistic stuff and I'm not sure the more pacifist or idealist types who comprise the Nobel committee necessarily anticipated that this is what they were going to hear.

SIEGE: Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Dr. HAASS: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And now to Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent of Newsweek and MSNBC. Howard, you've already described the speech as one that could have been written not just for past presidents but for the previous president, for George W. Bush.

Mr. HOWARD FINEMAN (Chief Political Correspondent, Newsweek): Well, I said in many ways that's true. Yes, the tone was humble. Yes, it was philosophical. Yes, it was complex. He talked about negotiations and banning torture and so forth, the importance of diplomacy. But I was struck, as somebody who covered the Bush administration, by how fundamentally he accepted some of the premises of George W. Bush's view of the world - the existence of evil. The president used the word terrorism several times. That's a word he's avoided in some recent speeches. He said no jihad could ever be a just war. No holy war could ever be just, but he said that in essence the war in Afghanistan was. Those are all notes I think that George W. Bush might well have struck.

SIEGEL: Why do you think President Obama gave such a speech? That - you would suggest here it's out of character?

Mr. FINEMAN: Well, first of all, I don't think it's entirely out of character. I think even though he came to prominence with that anti-war speech, anti-Iraq speech that he gave in 2002, his positions have always been much more nuanced and realistic than some of his most fervent supporters have thought. They weren't listening to everything he said. He's always been a realist. He's never been a pacifist. And he showed that by the decisions he's made recently.

SIEGEL: And his audience for this speech, who do you think it was?

Mr. FINEMAN: Well, it wasn't the people in Norway because they weren't applauding, and he skipped lunch and he skipped dinner very much in the Bush fashion to get back here to the United States. I think the audience was middle-class swing voters in the United States of America who elected him and who will decide his future.

SIEGEL: Howard Fineman, thank you very much for talking with us.

FINEMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Howard Fineman is chief political correspondent for Newsweek and MSNBC. We also heard from Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Obama Defends U.S. Wars As He Accepts Nobel Prize

Thorbjoern Jagland hands the diploma and medal to Obama i i

hide captionThorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, hands the diploma and medal to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama during the award ceremony Thursday in Oslo.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Thorbjoern Jagland hands the diploma and medal to Obama

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, hands the diploma and medal to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama during the award ceremony Thursday in Oslo.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize during a ceremony Thursday in Norway, acknowledging the paradox of receiving the award as the U.S. is embroiled in two wars, while maintaining that instruments of war have a role in preserving peace.

In his acceptance speech, Obama told Nobel Committee members and guests in Oslo that achieving peace must begin with the recognition that the use of force is sometimes morally justified.

"Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms," he told the crowd.

It was just nine days ago that Obama announced he is sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in an effort to step up training of Afghan security forces and root out insurgents operating on the border with Pakistan.

The president also used the Nobel platform to exhort allies to help eradicate terrorist extremism in Afghanistan.

"I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it," he said, urging support for NATO and saying peacekeeping responsibilities shouldn't be left to a few countries.

The president said war is justified in cases of self-defense, when civilians are being slaughtered by their own government, or a civil war threatens to engulf an entire region.

Accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, the president struck a humble tone upon arriving in the Norwegian capital after a seven-hour flight from Washington, D.C. He acknowledged the controversy surrounding the Nobel Committee's decision to honor him less than a year into his presidency, saying he knew there were others more deserving of the honor.

During his speech, Obama took note of the "giants of history" who have been honored with the Peace Prize, including humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Red Cross founder Henry Dunant.

"My accomplishments are slight" by comparison, he said.

At a news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg earlier in the day, Obama vowed to use the award to advance his goals for peace.

"My task here is to continue on the path that I believe is not only important for America, but important for lasting peace in the world," Obama said. His goals include stabilizing Afghanistan, mobilizing an international effort to deal with terrorism and combating climate change.

The acceptance ceremony at Oslo City Hall set off a whirlwind trip for the Obamas, who were expected to be in the capital city for little more than 24 hours — to the dismay of some Norwegians. The president was later expected to view a torchlight precession from the balcony of his hotel before meeting with Norwegian royalty. The Obamas were scheduled to end the day with at a banquet and then head back to Washington.

As Obama walked onto the stage, trumpets sounded and he was greeted with polite applause.

During the 36-minute speech, the president said nations of the world must adhere to standards that govern the use of force, but he acknowledged that Americans can't expect other nations to follow rules that the U.S. ignores.

"Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war," Obama said, adding that this belief led him to ban torture and close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend," he said.

After spending much of the speech talking about the use of force, Obama told the crowd that the recipe for lasting peace should include the development of alternatives to conflict that are strong enough to force intransigent regimes to adhere to international law.

Touting his work with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev toward reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, Obama said Iran and North Korea must be held responsible for violations.

"Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia," he said. "Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."

Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to be awarded the peace prize. Theodore Roosevelt claimed the award in 1906 for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese war. Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for his work as chief architect of the League of Nations.

Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize more than two decades after leaving office in recognition of his continued work for international peace and human rights.

The Nobel committee announced in October that it would bestow the honor on Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" — giving an extra nod to Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

"Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened," the committee said.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 97 individuals and 20 organizations. The first peace prize was awarded in 1901 to Dunant and Frederic Passy, an internationally known pacifist.

The prize includes a check for $1.4 million, which Obama has said he will donate to charity.

The other Nobel prizes were awarded later Thursday during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. King Carl XVI Gustaf honored 13 people for outstanding work in chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and economics.

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