Every good speechmaker has an audience in mind.
In President Barack Obama’s case, his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a message to several audiences. Among them: supporters at home and abroad who cheered his election and the hope for racial and global reconciliation he represents, and critics who think he hasn’t done enough yet to warrant such an historic honor.
But as I listened to the address, it also struck me as a retort to one man in particular: former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Since Obama took office, Cheney has taken it upon himself to become the most visible and vocal proponent of a conservative indictment that goes beyond merely questioning the wisdom of the president's foreign policy.
The former veep has criticized and even mocked Obama's fundamental world view, charging that it is naïve and unpatriotic.
Just weeks after Obama took office, Cheney was already suggesting that the new administration didn’t know who or what it was dealing with in the global war on terror.
Protecting America’s security is “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” he told Politico last February. “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”
In Oslo, the president responded directly to Cheney's charge. He began, rather gallantly, by defending the non-violent principles embodied by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” Obama said, “I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”
“But,” the president immediately went on to say, “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.… For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’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.”
Just this week, Cheney suggested to Fox News that Obama is insufficiently proud of his country, and doesn’t believe that America is a unique force for good in the world.
Citing Obama’s bow to the Japanese emperor during his recent trip to Asia, and charging that the president spends too much time “apologizing” for past injustices, Cheney told Sean Hannity: “That says to me this is a guy who doesn’t fully understand or share that view of American exceptionalism that I think most of us believe in.”
America's place in the world
So it was probably no accident that Obama went out of his way in Oslo to explain precisely what he believes makes America so special among nations.
He detailed how United States has “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms” — though this was something, he noted, that was done thanks to both national self-interest and global altruism.
And while he argued that America should not seek to impose its own system of government on other nations, Obama contended that “even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”
In other words, the nation is unique in its support for universal freedoms, which, Obama made clear, should include — but not be limited to — pro-Western, pro-democracy movements.
As expected, the president also fired back at Cheney on the issue of torture. “Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules,” he said, “I believe that the United Sates of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war … That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed … We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”
But despite its eloquence, the fact that his speech can be seen (at least in part) as a response to Cheney and his conservative chorus highlights something very telling about the Obama presidency.
Americans elected him, and the Nobel committee awarded him the peace prize, in large measure simply because he wasn’t George Bush. But now that he’s been in the White House for a year, he will and should be judged primarily on his own performance and achievements.
While the Oslo lecture was never meant to be a policy speech, it offered only a sketchy sense of an “Obama doctrine.” Beyond making the case for “just wars” and putting Afghanistan in that category, the president talked about the need for tough sanctions to deal with the nuclear aspirations of Iran, North Korea and other nations; the requirement for more multilateralism in a more multi-polar age; and the urgency of acknowledging economic development and climate change as national security issues.
Power vs. personality
But he didn’t address an issue that less-partisan observers are raising more and more these days: whether Obama has mastered the art of exercising power — of using more than just the force for his words and personality to translate his noble (and now Nobel) ideals into tangible results around the world.
In making the case for engagement, the president cited the fruits of Richard Nixon’s opening to China and Ronald Reagan’s decision to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union. But both of those historic breakthroughs were achieved not just with powerful speeches and the “open hand” of transparent diplomacy, but with more Machiavellian tools of power: secrecy, brinksmanship and tough negotiations (and even intimidation) behind the scenes.
No matter what you think of Cheney and his beliefs, he knew how to wield power in Washington vis-à-vis ambivalent allies and tough customers around the world. And like it or not, Cheney's dark reading of human motives and behavior was often helpful when it came to figuring out how to get his way.
As the president closed his speech, it was easy to sense that he has come to appreciate these hard realities a bit more than when he took office a year ago. He also seems to have accepted that fighting for change is much more of a struggle than a crusade.
“We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice,” he said. “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.”
It’s still far from the grim philosophy of the man who revels in being called “Darth Vader.” But it’s a world view that clearly has been tested and tempered by a tough year since President Barack Obama spoke those stirring inaugural words on the steps of the Capitol last January.