OSLO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, on Thursday defended the right of the United States to wage “just wars” like the one in Afghanistan.
In a speech at the award ceremony in Oslo, preceded by a fanfare of trumpets, Obama declared he would not “stand idle” in the face of threats to the United States.
He raised the spectre of a new nuclear arms race, potentially in the Middle East or East Asia, and called for tough sanctions against nations that did not abide by international laws, a warning to Iran and North Korea.
Obama also acknowledged criticism that he does not deserve the prize and has few tangible gains to show from his nearly 11 months in office, saying he was “at the beginning, and not the end, of my labours on the world stage”.
The president’s acceptance speech, punctuated with references to past winners of the peace prize, was notable for its dominant theme of war.
He was speaking just nine days after ordering 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a major expansion of the eight-year-old war. Obama hopes the additional troops will help to break the momentum of a resurgent Taliban and buy time to train Afghan security forces to take over from the Americans.
He walked a rhetorical tightrope in addressing the paradox of a president receiving the highest award for peace while waging two major foreign conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” he said.
“There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” he said, adding that the Afghanistan war had been forced on the United States by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were masterminded by al Qaeda from there.
He said he was mindful of former civil rights leader and Nobel peace laureate Martin Luther King’s statement that “violence never brings permanent peace”. But, Obama said, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”
There was loud applause from some 900 invited guests as Obama accepted the award in a grand room in Oslo’s city hall, becoming the third sitting U.S. president to receive the Nobel prize in its 108-year history.
While the award has excited international interest, Americans are preoccupied with double-digit unemployment and are more concerned about how Obama plans to generate new jobs. Americans remain anxious about the economy, nudging Obama’s approval ratings to 50 percent or below.
Obama said the United States must uphold moral standards when waging wars that were necessary and justified.
“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct,” he said.
By pledging to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for foreign terrorist suspects on Cuba, and moving to bring inmates to trial on U.S. soil, Obama has attempted to recover the moral high ground that critics of the United States accused his predecessor George W. Bush of surrendering by waging a no-holds-barred war on terrorism.
Acknowledging “a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower,” he said his country could not act alone in confronting global challenges in Afghanistan, Somalia or other troubled regions.
In seeking alternatives to force, it was necessary to be tough.
“Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must enact a real price,” Obama said in a passage that addressed North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and U.S. suspicions that Iran, too, seeks to acquire the bomb.
“It is ... incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system,” Obama said. “Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”
On a rainy day with temperatures just above freezing, thousands lined heavily guarded Oslo streets to greet Obama.
Only handfuls of protesters were visible, with one group holding a sign reading: “Obama you won it, now earn it.”
Environmentalists in the crowd called on the U.S. leader to sign an ambitious deal to fight global warming when he visits nearby Copenhagen next week for the climax of a U.N. climate conference involving nearly 200 countries.