Obama Lays Out America's Role In Nobel Speech

After accepting the Nobel Peace Prize Thursday, President Barack Obama delivered a sweeping speech that embraced the contradiction of a wartime leader receiving such an honor. The president said evil does exist in the world and sometimes nonviolent measures don't work. In the speech, Obama was passionate about the way forward in Afghanistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're reporting this morning on two efforts to set boundaries for violence. U.S. Marines try to fight a war while sparing civilians, and we'll hear more on that in a moment. We start with President Obama, who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize after escalating that same war.

Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: When they gave Mr. Obama the prize for his plans on climate change and disarmament and diplomacy, the Nobel Committee could never have imagined this, that he would accept the peace prize with words that would have sounded familiar from their nemesis, George W. Bush. Describing himself for the first time as a head of state, President Obama told them that at times, the use of force was not only necessary, but morally justified.

President BARACK OBAMA: For 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. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

LIASSON: The speech and the policies it defended represented a watershed moment for the president, says Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Speechwriter for George W. Bush): The first stages of the Obama presidency have been all about engagement, about reaching out, about offering hands, about turning leaves, about new eras.

LIASSON: But with his decision to commit 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the president has started a new chapter for himself, fully embracing his role as commander-in-chief.

Mr. GERSON: The reality is, eventually, you know, a policy of outreach also needs some steel in the spine where you have to defend American interests, where you have to draw lines, where you have to say that, you know, offers can't be flapped away again and again with impunity. And that I do think is the next stage of the Obama presidency. He is going to have to show, as he showed on Afghanistan, he's going to have to show on issues like Iran that, you know, that the outreach is also matched with some resolve.

LIASSON: The president was humble about the award, but he wasn't apologetic about his policies. To Michael Gerson, the speech was a sign of a maturing leader. Presidential historian Bob Dallek agrees, up to a point.

Mr. BOB DALLEK (Presidential Historian): In many ways, it reminded me of the sort of speech you might hear from a Woodrow Wilson or a Franklin Roosevelt or a John Kennedy. But...

LIASSON: There's a big but for Dallek, who believes, like so many in the president's party, that his Afghan policy is wrong and doomed to fail, just like Vietnam for Lyndon Johnson.

Mr. DALLEK: A lot of the rhetoric that one sees in this speech, however attractive, it's, I believe, going to be eclipsed by the developments in Afghanistan because that's going to be the front-and-center preoccupation of the people in this country and allies abroad for the foreseeable future.

LIASSON: But there was plenty in the speech to give Mr. Obama's anti-war supporters comfort: a defense of talking to repressive regimes even though, as he said, it lacks the satisfying purity of indignation, rules of conduct in war, support for human rights, investments in development.

Pres. OBAMA: And yet I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power to complete this work without something more, and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination, an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.

LIASSON: The speech was intellectual and inspiring, the combination of qualities that initially attracted so many of his supporters. And it had something that his last big speech at West Point seemed to lack: passion for the way forward in Afghanistan. He'll need it to rally the nation again and again as casualties mount in that unpopular war.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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