Speech Writers Grade Obama's Oslo Address
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
An important speech, today, from President Obama, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, just days after dispatching 30,000 more U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan. We'll let you hear substantial excerpts, then get analysis from two former presidential speechwriters. The president began saying he accepts this award with great humility.
President BARACK OBAMA: In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize � Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela � my accomplishments are slight.
And then there are the men and women around the world who've been jailed, been beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics.
I cannot argue with those who find these men and women � some known, some obscure to all but those they help � to be far more deserving of this honor than I.
But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander in chief of the military 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 42 other countries � including Norway � in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.
CONAN: The contrast between the ideals of Mandela of King and the realities faced by a commander in chief would become one of the president's themes.
President BARACK OBAMA: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth. We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force, not only necessary, but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr., said in this same ceremony years ago: Violence never brings permanent peace, it solves no social problem, it merely creates new and more complicated ones.
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
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.
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.
I raise this point, I begin with this point, because in many countries, there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.
Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions, not just treaties and declarations, that brought stability to a post-World-War-II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.
CONAN: But President Obama also made it clear, repeatedly, that America cannot act alone.
Pres. OBAMA: I, like any head of state, reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't.
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait, a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.
Furthermore, America, in fact no nation, can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.
And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
CONAN: President Obama then repeated his belief that the U.S. has a moral and strategic interest in the rules of war: no more torture, no more Guantanamo Bay. He then went on to outline three ways to build a just and lasting peace, first to develop alternatives to violence tough enough to change behavior.
Pres. OBAMA: One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work toward disarmament.
I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy, and I am working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia's nuclear stockpiles.
But it's 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.
CONAN: The president's second point was the nature of the peace we seek. Without human rights, he argued, peace is a hollow promise.
Pres. OBAMA: For some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists, a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.
I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence.
We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests nor the world's are served by the denial of human aspirations.
CONAN: The president's third point focused on development, economic security and opportunity, and he concluded by arguing that we do not have to think human nature perfect for us to believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world, he said, to reach for the ideals that will make it a better place.
Pres. OBAMA: Let us reach for the world that ought to be, that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.
(Soundbite of applause)
Pres. OBAMA: Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor 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, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's 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 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 here on Earth. Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of applause)
CONAN: In a moment, former presidential speechwriters Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson on President Obama's address in Oslo today. What did you hear in the speech? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A bit later this hour, New Yorker magazine writer Jon Lee Anderson took a summer trip to the world's most failed state, Somalia.
But right now, the president's remarks in Oslo, Norway, today, where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. If you're joining us, he tackled the irony of accepting a peace prize as a wartime president. He maintained that instruments of war do have a role in preserving peace. He also acknowledged the controversy surrounded the Nobel Committee's decision to honor him less than one year into his presidency, saying he knew there were others more deserving of the honor. You can hear the president's remarks in full on our Web site, if you'd like. That's at npr.org.
What did you hear in the speech? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we - joining us now are two men who used to write speeches for presidents of the United States. Paul Glastris worked at the White House for Bill Clinton. He now is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back.
Mr. PAUL GLASTRIS (Senior Fellow, New America Foundation; Editor-in-chief, Washington Monthly; Former Speech Writer, President Bill Clinton): Great to be here.
CONAN: And Peter Robinson wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan. He's now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, with us today from the studios at Stanford University in California. Nice to have you back.
Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Former Speech Writer, President Ronald Reagan): Neal, a pleasure, thank you.
CONAN: And an unusual opportunity for a president of the United States, Peter Robinson, a world audience and a grand occasion.
Mr. ROBINSON: All of that true. He had a particular problem in delivering this speech, which I think he did actually address beautifully, which was that even some on his own side - Peter Beinart, for example, when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, called it a farce - that was his word, a farce - precisely because the president was so new in office and had accomplished so little, frankly, in foreign affairs.
He addressed that immediately. His underlying problem was to lend dignity to an event that could have been, frankly, ridiculous. He did that. He cleared the hurdle.
In my judgment, if you look at the content of the speech, it breaks cleanly into two pieces. The first half struck me as powerful, with passages that come just a little short of magnificent. The second half struck me as much weaker, with a couple of passage that, I'm sorry to say, were almost laughable. I invite brother Paul to talk me out of it, but that's the way it struck me.
CONAN: Paul Glastris?
Mr. GLASTRIS: Well, you know, I agree with Peter that this was an awkward moment for the president, and from the first hour after the award was given, we all recall him coming out to the Rose Garden and saying, you know, somewhat sheepishly, you know, did this really happen? He accepted it, but you could tell they were not expecting it, not inviting it.
Adding to the awkwardness was this awkward fact that he had just announced 30,000 new troops in Afghanistan. So how can you be getting a peace prize as a war president?
So - but as is often the case with Barack Obama, at moments when he has to do a speech on a subject, he has to do a speech he doesn't want to give on a subject he didn't want to deal with, he does his best work. And as we recall from the race speech that happened during the campaign, forced to talk about first principles, figure out, flesh out his philosophy, he tends to be somebody who doesn't want to reject one thing and only in others. So we saw in this speech a real philosophy of American involvement in the world, and I thought it was - magnificent is a good word.
CONAN: And Peter Robinson, it struck other observers that perhaps, the Nobel Committee might have been surprised to invite a speech by a president who ran as the anti-war candidate and get a robust defense of the use of force.
Mr. ROBINSON: That's right. Just before going on the air, Neal, I reread the citation of the Nobel Committee that they issued when awarding the prize to President Obama, and it talked about the new attitude that he embodies, dialogue, negotiations, all frankly what Clare Boothe Luce used to refer to as globaloney: talk. And the president, in what - the powerful first half of the speech, simply brushed that all aside and gave a really unapologetic, thoughtful defense of the American use - the American need to use force from time to time in the world. I couldn't agree more. A couple of members of that committee must have been squirming.
CONAN: And at the same time, Paul Glastris, he talked not just about just war, but about just peace, that peace without human rights is a hollow promise.
Mr. GLASTRIS: That's right, and I guess that second half of the speech may not have been as powerful. There was a kind of a litany, you had to get all the different pieces of the foreign policy in there, and - but what he did in that second half was, I thought, line up the different tools which he believes are essential to American power and made a fairly forceful and cogent argument for using all of them and using them well, from development to human rights to political reform. And I think there was an element in this speech of him trying to remind the world: Though I am a realist who uses force, that doesn't mean that human rights and ideals aren't also part of my thinking.
So there was a weeding together of things and a refusal to reject different tools and different philosophies that have been part of the American foreign policy tradition for a long time.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. What did you hear in the president's speech in Oslo today? Our guests are former presidential speech writers Paul Glastris and Peter Robinson. Let's start with Diane(ph), Diane with us from Grand Rapids.
DIANE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Diane.
DIANE: Well, I heard him instruct people all over the world how to proceed with courage, and I really thought it was glorious.
CONAN: You heard inspiration in the speech?
CONAN: And what struck you in particular?
DIANE: Well, at the very end, when he named different people and their situations, and applied it directly to his overall philosophy of what you guys have just been talking about, the philosophical basis for the decisions and the idealism. So it really is very moving to me.
CONAN: I can tell. I can tell, Diane. And let me ask you, Peter Robinson.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes.
CONAN: The president has the ability, clearly, that he can launch into these oratorical flights when he chooses, and he apparently chooses his moments carefully. He did not choose to at West Point.
Mr. ROBINSON: That's right. That's exactly right. I agree with Paul that this is probably the most thoughtful speech since the race speech during the campaign. Lord knows, it was long. It came in at over 4,100 words. I compared that to�
CONAN: White House reporters were told to expect 20.
Mr. ROBINSON: Twenty�
CONAN: Twenty minutes.
Mr. ROBINSON: Twenty minutes. Oh, well, they got�
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: They got double that.
Mr. ROBINSON: They got double that, exactly. By the way, I said something that may strike some people as outrageous. I'd like to try it on Paul specifically because I said the second half of the week struck me as weak - second half of the speech, rather, struck me as weak, and here's what I mean.
After that beautiful first half, in which he lays the predicate for action, he then goes on to say: Sanctions must exact a real price. And then he says: It is incumbent on all of us to do - to do what? To impose real sanctions on Iran and Korea? No, to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Insist, game - they're not gaming the system. They're building nuclear missiles in the face of treaties, of one endless series of diplomatic rounds after another.
That struck me as so weak, as so undercutting the earlier half of the speech, in which he laid the predicate for strength in action, that I almost felt it was - it verged on self-satire. I'd just like to hear Paul - in other words, I'm trying to show exactly why I said what I said and see if Paul can talk me out of it.
CONAN: Okay, and let me thank Diane for her call first. Thanks very much, Diane. We'll get to somebody else in a minute.
Mr. GLASTRIS: I guess I - you may be - you know, we read the first half of the speech a little differently. I didn't see the first half of the speech as a rousing, glorious call to arms and action, but as a restrained and thoughtful meditation on the need for force in certain - at certain key moments and very much a kind of Neibuhr-ish - Reinhold Neibuhr - discussion of the need to lash oneself to international institutions to do one's work, and so I don't see the - I think maybe the tone was different, but I don't see that logically, there was any (unintelligible).
CONAN: And Peter Robinson, might it not have been tied to a political reality when you have the Russian government coming out today dismissing the idea of sanctions at all?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, that's entirely possible. It strikes me that even on Paul's reading, even on the Neibuhr-ish reading, the second half struck me as weak. You've got to - you acknowledge the tragedy of human existence, the need to take action from time to time. You can be as thoughtful and agonized about it as you wish, but you still have to do something from�
And in the second half of the speech, it was just more talk, it struck me. It just struck me as undercutting what I thought was a beautiful first half. That's all. That's my point.
CONAN: Here's some emails, this from Eric(ph) in Tucson. I liked what I heard, especially his sense of humility and responsibility and awareness. I think his explicit renunciation of torture alone is worth the peace prize. Decades from now, the worst legacy of the Bush-Cheney years will be in torturing fellow human beings.
Now, President Obama really needs to earn his peace prize over the next three years in efforts to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and promote a serious effort at tackling climate change and economic inequality.
This from Barbara(ph): I heard my president make clear that peace is a long and enduring process, that it does not come overnight with a magic wand, with a single prayer or thought. We must start the journey to peace, and when we are there, we will know, for peace comes when we believe in it and act on it.
Let's go next to Jeff, Jeff with us from Superior in Wisconsin.
JEFF (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. I listened to the speech twice, and I heard a young man. He's 47 years old, or 48 - whatever. And I think he's struggling with trying to meet his enemy as a leader of the free world in faith, hope and reason. And I think he's been successful in articulating the hope. He struggles with the faith aspect of it because religion enters that. But he realizes the limitations of his reasoning ability, perhaps because of his life experience or because he's a father or, you know, a leader of the nation.
But what concerns me as a liberal who voted for him - and I squirmed a little bit, too - is I'm afraid a man with his responsibility could be drunk with the responsibility of having this largest military in the world. We have this huge military industrial complex that makes money off of wars, and our enemy is upset with the America precisely because we are hegemonous(ph) in terms of our culture and our military. And that's a struggle for him I hear.
CONAN: I did not hear that in the president's speech. I heard quite the opposite. He spoke of the United States, yes, we had made mistakes, but as a force for good in the world over the past six decades, almost entirely.
JEFF: OK. Well, I also heard him struggle with Gandhi and King's - I want to say - blatant embrace of nonviolence.
CONAN: Yes. I wanted to ask - that's a good point, and I wanted to ask Paul Glastris about that. Yes, he embraced the noble ideals of Dr. King and Gandhi, yet - and said there's nothing weak about nonviolence. They were not naive. They were not weak. Nevertheless, that's not the situation I'm in.
Mr. GLASTRIS: It was interesting, because the symbolism of Martin Luther King having received a Nobel Prize, Barack Obama being the first African-American president, this being a Peace Prize, and yet talking about war and just war, into that crucible, out - came out - came some very simple, declarative commonsense arguments about the limits of - the greatness and potential of nonviolence and where it falls, by saying that - he said, you know, Hitler could not have beaten with nonviolence, which is something George Orwell wrote about 60 years ago.
CONAN: And there is evil in the world�
Mr. GLASTRIS: Right.
CONAN: �a phrase which would have fit comfortably into mouth of his immediate predecessors.
Mr. GLASTRIS: Yes, or Peter's former boss.
CONAN: Indeed. And there is a sense of continuity. And Peter Robinson, we were speaking earlier with Ron Elving, the senior Washington editor here at NPR News. And he said he thought he heard a president - as the result of the decisions he's had to make and his time in office now - beginning to grow into the role of president.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yup. I got the feeling, well, grow - what I got the feeling was the sense of struggle. He's not entirely comfortable with all of this. He wishes that the world were a little bit more malleable to talk in good intentions, but he's brought himself to a perhaps reluctant, but four-square recognition that force is sometimes necessary. By the way, Paul when you said Ronald Reagan could have - when I heard Barack Obama say, quote, �The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it,� you know my first thought? My first thought was, gee, I wish I had written that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We're talking with Peter Robinson, who might have written those words for former President Ronald Reagan, and with Paul Glastris, who wrote words as well for Bill Clinton. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to David, David with us from Berkeley.
DAVID: Yeah, I'm in my car on a cell phone so, if it gets cut out, my apologies.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Drive carefully, David. OK.
DAVID: Yeah. I guess I'd start with saying I'm a holocaust survivor's son, and, you know, in terms of just war, I could argue that I'd be more in favor of it than anybody else. But over the years, I've thought through what (unintelligible) Hitler. And as a progressive or liberal or whatever you want to call me - and I should say I thought I was a liberal until moved to Berkeley. That's one thing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVID: But, anyway, you know, as a progressive, I think - I wonder if Obama couldn't have been - worked a little harder to get behind what causes quote, unquote, �evil in the world,� to the extent that even identifying that there is evil in the world is a little too maybe unprogressive, and it's a - you know, I'm asking a question here, too. I mean, I think Obama is great in a whole lot of ways, but I was concerned that he did defend just war. And I'm coming - and again, I'm coming from a place where, arguably, I would be for it.
CONAN: And there's no denying that he defended just war. Paul Glastris?
Mr. GLASTRIS: Yeah. I - let me take that point and also Peter's previous point and remind you all that Barack Obama was in favor of stepping up the war in Afghanistan during the political campaign. This is not a new position for him. And his great, famous line that maybe made him president when he spoke up against the Iraq war: I'm not against all wars. I'm against dumb wars. This is not somebody who has struggled with the idea of using force. He may have struggled with the precise policy in Afghanistan. And who wouldn't? It's a miserable situation that he inherited, and I'm not at all sure that he has the right mix of policies now. But in a general sense of somehow having come in as a peacenik president and now suddenly has to confront issues of military force, I just don't think that's true.
CONAN: And I wondered - we just have a couple of minutes left, Peter Robinson, but this was a president who, in the months he spent debating the policies -the way ahead in Afghanistan, was clearly accepting some of the most difficult parts of being the commander-in-chief. He visited Walter Reed Hospital repeatedly. He went to the cemetery at Arlington on Veteran's Day. He clearly thought carefully about the men and women he would be sending to fight. And as he said today, they will kill and they will be killed.
Mr. ROBINSON: That is one of the things that gives this speech such depth and resonance and makes it so fascinating. I - the more I think about it now, the more I think your - Ron, if I remember his name - your political editor, whom I listen to often. I just can't remember his name.
Mr. ROBINSON: With the notion - right. The - I believe that in Afghanistan, this was the first time in his - and certainly as commander-in-chief, and perhaps in his adult life - when Barack Obama faced choices, none of which was good. And certainly, we know - we can be sure that it was the first time when he was going to send men and women into action knowing that it was their job to kill the enemy. This is not something that sits easily with him. Let's hope we never have a president with whom it sits easily. But for him particularly, there's a sense of struggle and moral anguish. That came through.
CONAN: Peter Robinson, thanks so much for your time, as always.
Mr. ROBINSON: A pleasure, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Robinson, research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a former White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, with us today from studios at Stanford University. Our thanks as well to Paul Glastris, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, editor-in-chief at the Washington Monthly. He used to write speeches for Bill Clinton and joined us here in Studio 3A.
Coming up: inside the world's most failed state. We'll talk with the New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson about his visit to Somalia.
Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.