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Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize with nod to criticism

The president acknowledges the irony of winning while the nation is at war. he calls his own accomplishments slight in comparison to those of past winners.

December 10, 2009|By Christi Parsons | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • President Obama displays the diploma and gold medal he received during the Nobel ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo.
President Obama displays the diploma and gold medal he received during… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Oslo, Norway — President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize here today, acknowledging the irony of winning it as a wartime president and calling his own accomplishments "slight" in comparison to past winners.

But in his speech to the Nobel Committee, Obama spoke of the concept of a "just war" and the pursuit of a "just peace," which he said sometimes depends on more than simply refraining from violence.

Lauding the commitment of past Nobel laureates to nonviolence, Obama said that -- as a head of state and commander-in-chief of a military at war, sworn to protect and defend his nation -- he cannot follow their examples alone.

"I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," Obama said. "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

With his remarks, delivered in the brief sunlight of the Norwegian winter's midday, Obama answered critics who complained that he was receiving the award before he had really done anything to achieve peace.

The award also comes just days after the president announced a military build-up in Afghanistan, a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops that the White House hopes will disable the terrorist headquarters in the region and bring the eight-year war to an end.

In presenting the award to Obama, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland argued that Obama has already changed international attitudes since he was sworn in last January, simply by insisting on negotiation and diplomacy first.

The committee didn't want to wait to voice its support for Obama's ideals, Jaglund said, suggesting that the award will help the president achieve his goals.

"It is now, today, we have the opportunity to support President Obama's ideas," said Jagland. "This year's prize is a call to action for all of us."

Obama accepted the award on those terms, calling his own accomplishments slight in comparison to past winners and others who he said deserve it more than he.

"Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars," Obama said.

The war in Iraq is winding down, he said, and the one that he is ramping up in Afghanistan is one which the U.S. did not seek.

"Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land," Obama said. "Some will kill. Some will be killed.

"And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict, filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace and our effort to replace one with the other,'' he said.

Speaking to the audience of Nobel Committee members and European leaders at Oslo City Hall, Obama invoked the words of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1964 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, that "violence never brings permanent peace." He praised international institutions devoted to preserving peace without conflict.

Still, the president said, "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."

The president also called on world leaders to stand together against those who flout international conventions.

The U.S. will follow certain rules of conduct, he said, noting his order banning torture and plans to close the infamous U.S. military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Regimes that break the rules have to be held accountable, he said, pointing to Iranian and North Korean refusal to follow conventions governing the use of nuclear power.

"Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable," Obama said. "Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."

Speaking before a large window, with the Oslo fjord visible behind him, the president praised the dignity of Myanmar activist Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the bravery of Zimbabweans who insisted on the right to vote despite the threat of violence and demonstrators who have marched against recent oppression in Iran.

"It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation," he said. "And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these movements that hope and history are on their side."

But Obama also described a "just peace" as one that includes not only civil and political rights, but also encompasses economic security and opportunity.

"For true peace is not just freedom from fear," he said, "but freedom from want."

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