The Magazine

A Nobel War Speech?

Did Obama lay the groundwork for an eventual strike against Iran?

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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'I liked what he said. I talked too in my book about the fallen nature of man and why war is necessary at times.'

Thus spoke Sarah Palin. The recipient of her praise? Barack Obama, for last week's Nobel Peace Prize address.

There was a fair amount for Bush Doctrine-supporters, American-exceptionalist patriots, and neocon warmongers to like in Obama's Oslo speech. He sounded hardheaded and pro-American, certainly by contrast with his previous rhetorical forays abroad--his utopian world-without-nuclear-weapons remarks in Prague in April or his apologetic speech to the Muslim world in Cairo two months later.

In Oslo, Obama began "by acknowledging a hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes." The implication of that? "There will be times when nations--acting individually or in concert--will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Note that "acting individually." Despite much talk elsewhere in the speech about the international community acting together, Obama held open the possibility that nations will have to act alone and will be morally justified in doing so.

Similarly, despite his professed admiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Obama explicitly said, "as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone." Indeed, Obama went on implicitly to rebuke Gandhi: "A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies."

What's more, "negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. .  .  . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."

The instruments of war may even have a preemptive role to play. For, Obama explained, an American president "cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people." Indeed, Obama repeated the "standing idle" image later in the speech: "Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war." Threats matter, and we can't wait to be attacked.

It's true that for Obama--as for any American president--the first alternative to standing idle against threats, or against governments that "brutalize" their own people, is international pressure and sanctions (accompanied by engagement). Indeed, Obama said, "the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression." But "less likely" is not never. We might in fact be faced with the choice of unilateral, preemptive armed intervention.

Where might that occur? Obama mentioned the Iranian regime twice in his Nobel speech--once in the context of nuclear proliferation, once in the context of human rights. (And he didn't call it the Islamic Republic of Iran, as he did in Prague and Cairo.) Reading Obama's speech could lead one to wonder whether this president, who had been committed to engagement with Iran, has decided that engagement has failed and is moving toward pressure and sanctions--and that he has in the back of his mind the possibility that the United States, "acting individually," might have to use force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

But perhaps that's wishful thinking.

On the other hand, we can presume that President Obama, when preparing his remarks, went back and read the addresses of those of his predecessors who were similarly honored. Perhaps he was moved by these words of an earlier progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize almost a century ago:



We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.