President Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: Conflictedness from The Conflicted Presidency

–Richard E. Vatz

It’s one of those moments that is devastatingly embarrassing to those of us who are neurotic: on the heels of someone’s oleaginous public compliment regarding your profound perspicacity and wisdom, your honest judgment requires you to publicly disagree with that person’s values or policies.

On October 9 President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which, parenthetically, made some conservatives feel incredulous and some conservatives write satires. The Committee’s goal, one might speculate, was to persuade President Obama to abjure using America’s military might in favor of “diplomacy only” to solve international problems.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s press release stated that the Prize was “…awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples…[d]ialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts…”

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How to reconcile his Nobel Peace Prize with: 1. his fighting two wars and his newly aggressive, if seriously conflicted, policy in Afghanistan as well as, 2. his plausibly keeping open, at least rhetorically, the prospect of military actions to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons? This was the goal of President Obama’s December 10, 2009 speech, delivered in Oslo, accepting the Nobel Prize.

How did President Obama do?

1. His humility in accepting the too-early-awarded Prize, if he was going to accept the Prize in the first place, was perfect in its timing (early in the speech) and tone, citing and detailing many who were “far more deserving of this honor than I.”

2. As a seminal principle, the President convincingly disavowed the pacifistic, naïve philosophy of non-violence as the answer to all aggression: “There will be times when nations…will find the use of force not only necessary, but morally justified…evil does exist in the world…” A conservative creed for President Obama? Belated homage to George W. Bush? And how about President Obama’s acknowledgement in this speech that democratic countries tend to become non-aggressive?

3. The President carefully avoided indicating whether force is even an option respecting Iran’s attainment of nuclear weapons – the Obama fatal flaw, in this writer’s opinion.

4. The President did reiterate his own credulous and ambiguous prohibition of “torture” and support for war only as a “last resort.” The former position ignores all of the evidentiary disputes regarding the necessity and historical success of intimidation for, say, acquiring quick information to counter imminent threats. The latter position ignores but does not refute President George W. Bush’s doctrine of war which implies that to wait too long before countering a threat may ensure catastrophe.

5. President Obama ended his speech by praising nonviolence as our “moral compass,” seeming to honor the peaceful intentions of those presenting him his benefaction while implying that they are unrealistic. They represent, he implied in his speech, those who live in a “world that ought to be.” The essence of this speech is its penultimate sentence: “We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”

The good news from this Nobel Prize acceptance speech is that the Nobel Peace Prize rhetoric has not persuaded President Obama to become a president of undiluted pacifism, the policy misperceived by many to produce worldwide peace by being a model of behavior that would inexorably produce peace by example.

The bad news from this speech is that President Obama’s muddled goals and uncertain exit strategy in Afghanistan and disinclination to use military action in Iran while not ruling it out show what a conflicted president he is.

What a perfect speech: conflicted values and conflicted policy considerations from a thoroughly conflicted president.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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