How Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Dec. 10 2009 2:56 PM

Obama's War and Peace

How the president accepted the Nobel while sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan.

Also in Slate: John Dickerson examines the challenges Obama navigated in spelling out a doctrine that seeks peace but acknowledges the necessity of war. Christopher Beam analyzes Obama's use of "false choices" as a rhetorical device.

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Most important, he said, all nations must "adhere to standards that govern the use of force." This is for practical as well as moral reasons. First, "America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves." Second, the failure to follow these stands can make our action "appear arbitrary" and "undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified."

He declared, "I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds." But, he added, as if to draw a distinction from George W. Bush's crusader rhetoric, "In a world in which threats are more diffuse and missions more complex, America cannot act alone." In fact, "all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace. … Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice."

War, he allowed, must be avoided whenever possible. But in some cases, he said, "alternatives to violence" must be "tough enough to change behavior, for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something." Those who break rules "must be held accountable." Sanctions "must exact a real price," and these pressures work "only when the world stands together as one." (Global unity not just to sing "Kumbaya" but to exert economic leverage on Iran and North Korea! Again, extraordinary words before this audience.)

The final section of his speech was the most complex and discomfiting. He said the world must also stand united against "those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people," because a truly just, stable, and lasting peace must be "based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual."

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However, he then said, "The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. … I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," but "sanctions without outreach—and condemnation without discussion—can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

To some, he said, Richard Nixon's summit with Mao Zedong, with the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, "appeared inexcusable"—yet it "helped set China on a path" of lifting millions out of poverty and connecting with open societies. Pope John Paul II's engagement with Poland "created space" not just for the Church but also for Solidarity. Ronald Reagan's embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika "not only improved relations with the Soviet Union but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe."

The key, he said, is to "balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

This recitation raises many more questions than it answers. How does the United States, the United Nations, the West, or anyone pull off this balancing act? When is the right time for sanctions, the right time for summitry? (Nixon went to China entirely for power-balancing reasons; enriching or opening up the Middle Kingdom must have been the last thing on his mind.) And what is Obama hinting at for his own policy toward, say, Iran or North Korea: Does the speech presage the ratcheting of sanctions, the opening to a grand bargain, or—in some still trickier balancing act—both? And what happens if, unlike Moscow under Gorbachev or Poland in the time of Lech Walesa, today's evil regimes are uninterested in openness and impervious to pressure?

"There is no simple formula here," Obama summarized. And that's the point. His speech, like Niebuhr's writing, reflects an active awareness of humanity's ideals but also its imperfections—of our reach and our limits.

It's unclear how Obama, as president, will deal with the tensions and contradictions. But it's good to know that he knows they exist.

AP Video: Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize

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