In Nobel Peace Prize Speech, Obama Addresses Criticism on Afghanistan Strategy

President Obama acknowledged skepticism in his acceptance speech.

Dec. 10, 2009— -- In his remarks in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today, a humble President Obama acknowledged the skepticism surrounding whether he deserves the award -- only about a quarter of Americans believe he does, according to a Quinnipiac poll -- as well as the seeming disconnect of a man who just escalated the war in Afghanistan accepting a prize for peace.

He seemed to agree that his award is comparatively premature, since he is at the beginning of his time on the world stage.

"Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize -- Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela -- my accomplishments are slight," the president said.

Read President Obama's full speech here.

Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding his prize, Obama said, is the fact that he is commander in -chief of a nation in the midst of two wars.

"I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage," Obama said this morning. "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. ... I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war."

Referring to the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, the president said that "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. ... The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."

Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan -- announced last week -- is a cause for much consternation in Europe. As the cover of one Norwegian tabloid asks: "War or Peace President?"

"Sending new troops to Afghanistan, I think it's not. ... I don't think he deserves it yet," one Norwegian woman told ABC News.

The president spent the better half of this speech discussing how to address this issue, and the idea of a "just war" and a "just peace," in a philosophical treatise.

"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," Obama told the audience.

He later decried "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." Al Qaeda extremists "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."

But without question this was a Peace Prize speech in which the president defended the need for the United States to continue the conflict in Afghanistan -- and perhaps elsewhere.

"War itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such," he said. "So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings."

When force is necessary, the United States has a moral and strategic interest in binding itself to certain rules of conduct, Obama said, and the United States must be the standard bearer, which is the reason why he outlawed torture and ordered that the detainee center in Guantanamo Bay be closed.

"I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates -- and weakens -- those who don't," Obama said.

Obama spoke of ways for the United States to pursue ways to avoid war -- pushing human rights and economic opportunity for everyone, and underlining the need for the international community to engage in tough diplomacy to punish rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea that are pursuing nuclear weapons.

"In dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something," Obama said. "Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price."

The president also made his most robust defense of his policy of engaging with adversaries.

"I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," he said. "But I also know that 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."

"In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors," the president said, President Richard Nixon's meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong "appeared inexcusable -- and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty, and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe."

Obama said engaging with hostile regimes is not simple but "we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

While the nonviolence preached by King and Gandhi may not always be possible, the president said, the love that they preached -- their faith in human progress -- must always be the North Star that guides the world on its journey.

"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," Obama told the audience, which included stars such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. "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."

Obama is just the third sitting U.S. president to win the prestigious award, and the first to win it in his first year in office. The previous sitting U.S. presidents who won were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Does President Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

Earlier today, at a joint press conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Obama said that he is pursuing policy goals regardless of whether they will garner him an award, among them, nuclear no-proliferation, climate change, stabilizing Afghanistan and mobilizing an international effort to combat terrorism consistent with U.S. values and ideals.

"So on a whole host of initiatives that I've put forward this year, some of which are beginning to bear fruit, the goal is not to win a popularity contest or to get an award -- even one as esteemed as the Nobel Peace Prize -- the goal is to advance American interests, make ourselves a continuing force for good in the world. Something that we have been for decades now," he said.

"And if I'm successful in those tasks then hopefully some of the criticism will subside, but that's not really my concern," the president concluded. "And if I'm not successful then all the praise and the awards in the world won't disguise that fact."

Obama was asked about the criticism that his Nobel Peace prize is "premature" and how he can use it to "make some of your good intentions materialize."

"Upon receiving news of the prize it was a great surprise to me," the president said. "I have no doubt that there are others who may be more deserving."

How much the president deserves this award is an open question, according to U.S. polls and Norwegians.

"I think he may show later that he may deserve it, but not at present," said one Norwegian man. "So he hasn't shown enough to deserve it today."

Others agree, saying it's too soon and that others are more deserving.

"We need action, not just hope," said one Norwegian woman.

The president addressed such critics in his speech, saying, "The absence of hope can rot a society from within."

This morning, the president signed some legal documents giving the Nobel Institute the right to publish his acceptance speech, and Obama and the first lady signed a book containing the signatures of previous Nobel Peace Prize winners, notable names such as King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Asked what he wrote, the president said: "In addition to being honored to receive it, I think it's important to congratulate the Nobel Committee for the work that it's done over the course of history to highlight the cause of peace but also to give voice to the voiceless and the oppressed around the world."

Referring to the photos of previous Nobel Peace Prize recipients on the wall behind him, the president continued, "When you look at the wall -- Michelle and I were commenting on the fact that when Dr. King won his price it had a galvanizing effect around the world, but also lifted his stature in the United States in a way that allowed him to be more effective. And that's a legacy of the Nobel Committee that we're very grateful for."

Obama has promised to give the money that comes with the prize to a charity. The White House says it is still working on deciding the charity, but there is speculation that it could go toward an organization that provides microfinancing, a grass-roots method popular in many developing countries to provide loans to the poor and a subject that the president's mother wrote about extensively.