There was little question inside the White House that the central themes of Barack Obama’s speech had to include war and peace.
He has read the Nobel speeches of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elie Wiesel. He has studied the award’s rich history and its extraordinary roster of winners.
Yet President Barack Obama accepts his prize on Thursday at Oslo City Hall, he faces a far different challenge than those who have gone before him: He is a wartime leader, accepting a medal that is a commendation to peace, which even he insists he does not yet deserve.
There is, of course, no escaping the paradox of this moment for Mr. Obama as he delivers an acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize only nine days after announcing that he would escalate the war by sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.
“There is one very pregnant question,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “How do you reconcile your role as a commander in chief with your aspirations to promote a more peaceful world at a time of war? That’s a question that he’s going to explore in some detail.”
If the trajectory of the President’s political career can be measured, at least in part, through his speeches, the remarks he will give about the United States’ place in the world provides one of the most pronounced tests of his rhetoric. And surely the most unusual, given that the applause in Norway comes at a particularly trying period of his presidency.
It is, after all, merely a speech. (Actually in the parlance of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, it is called a Nobel Lecture, which is supposed to last 20 to 25 minutes.)
Burden seemed greater
But suddenly, the burden seems even greater than it did two months ago when the Nobel committee startled the world — and Mr. Obama — with its decision to honour the President well before a full picture of his achievements is known.
At the time, the committee made no mention of Afghanistan, but wrote, “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”
So there was little question inside the White House that the central themes of the President’s speech had to include war and peace.
Two days after he delivered his Afghanistan address last week at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office with two speech writers, Ben Rhodes and Jon Favreau, and began to offer an outline for what he would like to say in Oslo.
Mr. Obama is the third sitting American president to be awarded the peace prize. A student of history, he read the lecture of Theodore Roosevelt, who won the award in 1906 for his role in bringing an end to the war between Russia and Japan. He also studied the words of Woodrow Wilson, who sent a telegram to the committee — he was ill and could not attend — for his 1919 award in recognition of his 14-point peace programme for ending World War I.
With so few former Presidents to seek guidance from, aides said, Mr. Obama also spent time looking back at the speech of George C. Marshall, who was awarded the prize in 1953 for helping to rebuild the post-World War II world through the plan of economic aid that bears his name. Mr. Obama also was intrigued by the lectures of more recent honorees, aides said, including Mandela in 1993 and King in 1964.
The lessons of history, though, provided only a limited amount of instruction, considering that Mr. Obama’s circumstances are starkly different than those of previous winners. So in addition to explaining his strategy for Afghanistan — outlining why war is necessary to bring peace — the President’s advisers said they will reprise the words of humility that Mr. Obama delivered on Oct. 9, hours after learning he had won the award.
Poses a challenge
“It’s not necessarily an award he would have given himself,” Axelrod said. “In that sense, it poses a challenge, but thinking through these issues is not burdensome. He spends a lot of time thinking about how you promote a more peaceful and secure world, about the appropriate use of power and about the value and importance of diplomacy.”
Mr. Obama will formally enter the history of the 108-year-old Nobel prize when he delivers his lecture in a ceremonial room of Oslo City Hall, which offers a view of the picturesque bay of Oslofjorden.
When presidents deliver their most important speeches, like Mr. Obama’s April address on nuclear threats from the central square of Prague or his June speech to the Muslim world from Cairo University, the White House choreographs the backgrounds, camera angles and crowds. But in this case the venue, like the award itself, is something that this president cannot control. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service