By DeWayne Wickham
It was the incongruity of the moment — the leader of a nation at war receiving the world’s highest peace award — that may well make what Barack Obama said in Oslo, Norway on Thursday the most important speech of his presidency.
In accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize just nine days after ordering a dramatic increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Obama spoke of war as a necessary evil that sometimes offers the only chance for lasting peace.
“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” Obama said. “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
While the notion of a just war probably dates back to first time cavemen used clubs to settle an argument, Obama doesn’t see its goal as conquest. War is justified, he said, when it is waged to end slaughter and preserve the peace.
But a just war has little lasting value if it doesn’t produce a “just peace,” the president said. Such a peace, he said, “includes not only civil and political rights, it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”
Just as the Powell Doctrine, named after former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, prescribes how and under what conditions the United States should fight a war, Obama’s doctrine lays out a global rationale for going to war in the name of peace.
Back in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson laid out his formulation for peace in an address to Congress 10 months before the end of World War I. In his famous Fourteen Points speech, Wilson outlined what needed to be done at the conclusion of the war to produce a lasting peace. Most of his points had to do with restoring the sovereignty of countries caught up in the conflict.
But the last of his 14 points called for creation of “a general association of nations” to provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” That idea led to the League of Nations — the forerunner of the United Nations — which Wilson hoped would preserve peace around the world.
As subsequent events made clear, and as Obama acknowledged in his speech, war is not so easily eradicated.
“We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice,” Obama said. “We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”
And we must hope that he’s right in believing that the young men and women he’s committed to battle are fighting a just war — one that will produce a just and lasting peace.