Commentary: in Nobel speech, Obama displays idealism with a hard edge

The Miami HeraldDecember 13, 2009 

When President Obama rose to the podium to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he took a decisive step away from pacifism and traveled a considerable distance to convince skeptics that he is not a naive idealist.

Obama's speech, which is known as the Nobel Lecture, showed the evolution of a man tasked with leading the most powerful nation on Earth.

The soaring rhetoric of a candidate opposed to the war in Iraq and committed to diplomacy yielded to the sobering realizations of a president now responsible for protecting a nation and leading an international alliance.

"To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism," he explained, "It is a recognition of history." The speech was filled with subtleties and efforts to reconcile the seeming contradiction of waging war for the sake of peace. But Obama offered one very simple argument to bolster the case that war is sometimes justified: "Make no mistake," he said, "Evil does exist in the world."

It must have hurt some of Obama's supporters to hear their idealism scorned by their hero. "The belief that peace is desirable," he noted sharply, "is rarely enough to achieve it." That is a painful truth that peace-loving people who live surrounded by enemies have discovered across the centuries.

Some conflicts can be solved by diplomacy, by placing the two sides in a room in the company of a skilled negotiator. Some people may change their positions after hearing an inspiring speech and seeing a more-conciliatory stance from the other side. But there are cases where this is not enough. Obama discovered that during his first year in office.

Now that Obama has been mugged by reality, he has a chance to gain the support of critics around the world in places such as Israel, India or Burma; critics who believed Obama did not have a grasp of some of the uglier circumstances they have faced over the decades and continue to endure today. Those who complained that America's young president had not faced up to the realities of extremist groups, uncompromising ideologies and brutal power-hungry regimes may now feel some relief.

We may look back on this moment at Oslo's stately City Hall as a turning point for this administration. The speech marks the end of the beginning. We will see how Washington's policies take shape in the months ahead. Only that will provide the irrefutable evidence of a change of direction.

But there are already hints that Obama recognizes some of the idealistic positions taken during the campaign and put to the test during most of his first year in office have simply failed to yield results.

Iran has dismissed Obama's offers. His efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians have pushed them farther apart and the raging conflicts around the world have only intensified since he came to power.

Speeches to the Muslim world did nothing to cool the flames of anti-Western Islamic radicalism, and calls for peace did not weaken the Taliban.

Obama came to power brandishing an outstretched hand in pursuit of unclenched fists. The gestures have achieved nothing so far. Other countries have had the same experience. Colombia made brave and generous moves to reconcile with guerrillas in their midst. Those efforts were met with waves of killings and kidnappings. Israel offered peace to its neighbors from the day of its founding. Its offers were rewarded with calls for its annihilation and actions to achieve it. Only strength -- and the willingness to use force -- laid the groundwork for peace.

In accepting the prestigious peace prize, Obama spoke about the need for international norms and institutions, and for vigorous efforts to prevent war. But he also spoke pointedly of how America's military forces have made peace possible in places like Germany, Korea and the Balkans. "So, yes," he said again, "the instruments of war do have a role in preserving the peace." And again, in case you missed it, he added, "war sometimes is necessary."

The elegant audience in Oslo looked a little stunned. This was not the speech the Nobel Committee had in mind. But in countries where rockets still fall, in countries where terrorists attempt attacks almost every day, in countries where rockets still rain on schools and where millions of civilians hear frequent threats to their survival from neighbors seeking nuclear weapons, Obama's recognition that sometimes force is necessary was a most welcome surprise. Perhaps, they thought, the American president is not naive.

Perhaps he does understand.

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