The Nobel Speech | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 16, 2009
"There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." – Barak Obama, "Nobel Peace Address," December 10, 2009.
As far as I can tell, nothing in President Obama's background or politics prepared us for the remarkably sane address that he delivered in Oslo. He previously went around the world apologizing for everything the Americans ever did, only to turn around and say it was absolutely necessary.
When he was first nominated for this famous prize, many voices were raised observing that someone who has done so little was chosen for a peace prize of all things. The selection was written off as Norwegian ideology at its worst. Now, we find out that Obama himself was rather surprised at the honor. He even acknowledged that he has really, as yet at least, done little to deserve it.
Many European leftists were flabbergasted at the speech, almost as if they had been betrayed in their own endorsements. After all, they took not a little credit in getting Obama elected in the first place.
Mr. Obama went ahead and accepted the prize anyhow the week after he had finally decided, with much delay, to send more troops in Afghanistan. He had announced this decision at a speech at West Point. (The Washington Post famously showed cadets sleeping during its delivery.)
Many have noted the increasing boredom with the president's repetitive rhetoric. Whether Afghanistan is the right place to send more troops can well be debated. But dispatching our troops and asking for more European soldiers, this time for those who can legally fight, is hardly the image of this (up to now) pacifist-sounding president.
The President made the following statements, with which George Bush would have little or no problem:
1) "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflicts in our lifetimes." So, no peace in our time.
2) "There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." Hard to disagree with that principle.
3) The United States has a special role in the promotion of liberty. "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." What more obvious thing is there about the record since World War II?
4) The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale." Just who these few "small" men are is not specified. They are probably much greater in number than the president is wont to acknowledge. But I confess some comfort in the hint that he finally realizes that they are about, with their intentions.
These are the principal statements that we heard in Oslo. They are obvious things some of us have been saying for years. They were said by Augustine long ago.
But what is worth speculating about is this: If this president could suddenly make such an about face on the crucial issue of war, can it happen in the other areas in which he is so disordered? We do not know, of course, if he will really have the courage to carry the war to the enemy in any effective sense. Wars tend last much longer than we often are prepared to expect or that our political support will tolerate.
Might we expect, however, that this most anti-life president we have ever seen also begins to see that his position on human live, family, and marriage is as muddled as was his previous position on war?
Being right on war and being right on life are, really, contrary to the common image, two sides of the same intellectual coin, the defense of innocent life. Surely, we are not being defended from our enemies, the "terrorists," so that we can continue to allow our own legally to be killed in the womb? Even these so-called "terrorists" usually understand that the enemy they perceive—namely, us—is morally decadent because of its policies in this area of life.
And the logic of reversals might also cause the president to wonder whether his policies on health and the economy are not also wrong-headed. For many, he seems to want to control everything, to put everything in the hands of the state with himself in command. It is, however, a policy that saps the polity of its very strength.
Again, could the same man who spoke in Oslo also see that in order to carry out his war thesis it is much more advisable to reverse his political agenda? Needless to say, I am not very sanguine here. But the reversal of the war rhetoric is so astounding that we can at least begin to wonder.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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