President Obama Accepts Peace Prize

President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Thursday, saying he was at the beginning of his work on the world stage. He also refused to renounce war, saying he is obliged to protect and defend the U.S.

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In Oslo, Norway, today at the Ornate City Hall President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Obama directly addressed what many have seen as a contradiction. He receives the award in the same month that he announced a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

NPR's Don Gonyea was at the ceremony in Oslo.

(Soundbite of music)

DON GONYEA: The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner accompanied by the first lady entered the room to a trumpet fanfare as the audience stood and applauded, anxious to hear what this man, known for his ability to mark a moment with a powerful speech, would say on the subject of peace. The president began by voicing humility, a response to those who suggest he's getting the honor way too soon.

President BARACK OBAMA: Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize - Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela - my accomplishments are slight.

GONYEA: But the question of the day was just how he would address his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He got to the topic right away. He said it is a war the U.S. did not seek.

Pres. OBAMA: Still we are at war. I'm responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land and some will kill and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict.

GONYEA: But then came something few in the audience likely expected: the president's spoke of peace as an ideal but then argued that war is sometimes necessary, that it can be just and moral. He spoke of a past Nobel laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached of the moral force of nonviolence and of Gandhi who had inspired King.

Pres. OBAMA: But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is. And cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people, for make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.

GONYEA: He called it an irreconcilable truth that war is sometimes necessary. He clearly was putting Afghanistan in that context. In dealing with oppressive regimes, he said nations need to stand firmly together, but that exhortations promoting human rights must also be coupled with what he called painstaking diplomacy. He seemed to be talking about Iran here.

Pres. OBAMA: I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach, condemnation without discussion can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

GONYEA: The president also spoke of how addressing such issues as climate change and global economic development are part of the security debate, as they can improve lives by helping provide stability. He ended by returning to Dr. King and Gandhi. He said we can live by their example even as we wrestle with conflicts that seem hard to reconcile.

Pres. OBAMA: We can admit the intractability of deprivation and still strive for dignity, clear-eyed 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's the hope of all the world and at this moment of challenge that must be our work your honor.

GONYEA: It was a speech but also a philosophical discussion, a rumination on the use of power and the military by a president wrestling with and justifying the difficult decisions his office requires.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Oslo, Norway.

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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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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