Saturday, December 12, 2009

Highlights from President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech

I was very impressed with the President's Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway. I was proud as an American to have a President who is as able to convey such a sincere, high-minded and articulate message to the world. I also agreed with most of his sentiments.

Below are some highlights from the speech. The entire transcript can be found here.

I thought he was very clear in explaining certain inconvenient realities, like the necessity of wars in some cases, and yet acknowledging that violence doesn't solve the world's problems:
"I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.
"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago -- "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naive -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

The President also reminded everyone that, while a noble cause, non-violence cannot always be the solution, especially for nations in a world such as ours:
"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. 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.

"I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower."


I also appreciated how President Obama was forthright in acknowledging our mistakes yet defended both our actions and intentions, reminding everyone to the fact that the United States has sacrificed blood and treasure to help achieve better global stability, and he did so without conveying arrogance and sanctimoniousness:
"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 service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

"So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."

Here, the President offered some examples of just reactions to violent offenses which could not go unchallenged:
"The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait -- a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression."

And made the case for consistency, fairness, and living up to our own standards:
"Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention -- no matter how justified."
And when discussing the challenge in avoiding wars that are not out of self-defense, though he makes no reference to Iraq, many will be reminded of it nonetheless:
"This becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region."

I think it was very important that the President made this point, particularly after the war crimes of the previous administration:
"Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."

Here was a much needed call to action to combat atrocities throughout the world without using force of arms:
"... Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.
"The same principle applies to those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur; systematic rape in Congo; or repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression."

The President took a principled stand for human rights, and rejected the notion that this is but some quaint Western concept. (I just want to know when he is going to make this point, bluntly, to 'allies' like Saudi Arabia, and of course, China):
"In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists -- a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values.
"I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations."

The following gets to the heart of why we cannot just bail out in Afghanistan:
"It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within."

Not mincing words, the President made a very important, politically incorrect condemnation of those who pervert religion into a justification to murder innocents (that goes for you, Muslims, and you too, Christians):
"Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint -- no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith -- for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

Finally, lofty inspiration:
"So let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.
"Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

I hope this speech will be well-received and treated fairly among the cynics back here at home. I know the war mongers despise notions of attempting dialog with and possessing a willingness to compromise with enemies, and I know the peaceniks want no part of notions such as "just" or "necessary" wars. And the President offered both. But what he also provided was a great deal of inconvenient realities that cannot be avoided; cannot be disputed. In fact, it's been depicted as "realistic idealism". That sounds just about right to me, and I firmly support it.

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