It was an awkward thing for the president to be accepting a Nobel Peace Prize shortly after announcing he would be sending more troops to Afghanistan. And perhaps recognizing that, the president eschewed ambiguities. "My accomplishments are slight," Obama said, acknowledging that the prize was awarded more for aspiration than accomplishment, admitting that there are those "far more deserving of this honor than I."
Obama's Nobel acceptance speech -- essentially a second escalation speech -- is perhaps the most articulate expression of The Obama Doctrine we've seen yet. It was a lengthy defense of American military intervention from World War II to Desert Storm, and a forceful justification of the escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan. It was a stirring defense of human rights, and an indictment of violence and extremism. Obama at once dismissed the idea of a military solution for problems of hunger and disease, while justifying military intervention on humanitarian grounds. He venerated Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., while asserting that "as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone." Obama conceded that "war itself is never glorious," but nevertheless argued that "the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." The president again repudiated the use of torture and advocated for engagement with repressive regimes, citing Iran, Burma, and North Korea by name. While "engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," Obama said, "the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone."
It was an unapologetic assertion of American exceptionalism, all while tying that exceptionalism to actual American behavior. It was, in short, exactly the kind of speech that one has come to expect from Obama, with it's paeans to human dignity: "Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting."
But much of the president's rhetoric on human rights felt hollow. "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend," he said. By that standard, we've lost ourselves. Obama has repudiated torture, but has left the other hallmarks of executive overreach -- from indefinite detention without trial or charge to warrantless surveillance -- largely untouched. He has refused to hold anyone accountable for the lawbreaking and human rights violations of the past, opting instead to "look forward."
On the right, folks will likely see this speech, with its unflinching defenses of American military intervention, as somehow distinct from Obama's previous rhetoric. It's entirely consistent with the vision the president set forth on the campaign trail -- a vision of American exceptionalism that demands certain standards of American conduct, not one that justifies our actions when we fall short. It neither justifies violence as a solution to all problems nor condemns it as useless. The fallacy of Obama as weak-kneed pacifist has been a much a creation of the fevered swamps as the controversy over his birth.
One of the best parts of Obama's speeches is that they seem to implicitly acknowledge his limitations. In this speech, Obama said, "Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us." For liberals, that may be the lesson of the first year of Obama's presidency.
-- A. Serwer