The Nobel War Lecture

Published: December 14, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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Nothing is perhaps more ethically challenging than a choice between war and peace. 

The following is a thoughtful, passionate response by David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, to President Obama’s recent speech in Norway.

“In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Obama, one of the world’s great orators and purveyors of hope, gave a speech that must reflect the divisions within himself and his personal struggles to reconcile them.  It was a surprising speech for the occasion.  Rather than a speech of vision and hope, it was a speech that sought to justify war and particularly America’s wars.  The speech was largely an infomercial for war, touting not only its necessity but its virtues, and might well be thought of as The Nobel War Lecture.

“How troubling it is to see this man of hope bogged down by war, not only on the ground but in his mind.  As he put it, ‘I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars.’ One of these wars he seeks to end, but the other he has made his own by recently committing 30,000 additional troops and justifying it as ‘an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.’ The president persists despite his recognition that ‘[i]n today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflicts are sewn, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.’

“Where was the vision that was so hopeful in Barack Obama the campaigner for the presidency?  Has a year in office reduced him to a ‘reality’ from which he cannot raise his sights to envision a more peaceful future – one without war or Predator drone attacks, one in which international cooperation in intelligence gathering and law enforcement could bring terrorists to justice?

“The president tells the world, ‘I did not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war.’  This is certain.  He tells his audience, ‘We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.’ Perhaps his decision to bow to the generals and increase the US presence in the war in Afghanistan is weighing heavily on him.  Perhaps he seeks a way to find it both ‘necessary’ and ‘morally justified.’

“President Obama acknowledges his debt to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading proponents of nonviolence, but he cannot find a way to follow their example.  He finds instead that ‘as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.’  From the lofty visions and practical actions of Gandhi and King, the president brings us down to earth, to his reality that in his position he is fated to carry on with war.  ‘So yes,’ he tells us, ‘the instruments of war have a role to play in preserving the peace.’

“What does he offer in the stead of peace?  He argues that there must be standards governing the use of force.  Yes, this is long established, although not often adhered to.  One such standard is no use of force without the approval of the United Nations, except in self-defense to repel an imminent attack.  But America and its NATO allies often take war into their own hands, ignoring this rule of international law to which all states are bound.

“Having justified war, the president offers three paths to building ‘a just and lasting peace.’  First, he argues for ‘alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior.’ This makes sense so long as it is applied to all states equally without double standards.  Second, he argues that peace must be based upon human dignity and human rights.  Of course, this is so.  Of course, America should stand for human rights rather than torture and the worst abuse of all – aggressive war.  Third, he makes the point that a just and lasting peace must also be based upon freedom from want.  There is nothing to argue with here.  Why not use our resources to help eliminate poverty and hunger and expand education and healthcare throughout the world, rather than pour these resources into waging war?

“President Obama barely mentioned nuclear disarmament in his speech.  When he did, he reiterated his commitment to upholding the Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling it ‘a centerpiece’ of his foreign policy.  He then moved quickly to pointing a finger at Iran and North Korea. ‘Those who seek peace,’ he said, ‘cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.’ He is right; no nation should arm itself for nuclear war, including the United States and the other eight nations that have already done so.

“The President might have built a strong, positive and hopeful speech on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, instruments of omnicide, but he chose instead to offer up a laundry list of reasons for war.  When it came to peace, his message, sadly, was No, we can’t.”


  1. Author

    I think [Sue] conclusively proves that you can’t please everyone. She certainly draws some strong conclusions from my use of words.

    What struck me most, though, was this sentence: “What educated American does not already know that politics and politicians are shamefully unethical, regardless of viewpoint?” That’s pretty dismissive of a large group of people, at least some of whom MUST be motivated by a desire to build more decent and ethical societies.

  2. Author

    According to this post: commenting on Obama’s speech when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, David Krieger makes the statement in the first sentence of his commentary: “President Obama…gave a speech that must reflect the divisions within himself…”

    I could read no more; simply the use of the word “must” was the stopper. How arrogant!

    And the phrase that follows, “must reflect the divisions within himself,” simply made me laugh. Apparently David Krieger has evolved more rapidly than the rest of us for not only can he read minds, he is omnipotent as well to have such confidence to use words such as “must.”

    I find this to be is an egregious example of arrogance and extremism. How extraordinary to find this particular phraseology on a website named “Its Ethics, Stupid!” Extremism and arrogance are not generally considered ethical characteristics.

    I would look first to the motives of this writer, for his choice of words are deliberate and they contradict the moral standards upon which ethical behavior is based. What educated American does not already know that politics and politicians are shamefully unethical, regardless of viewpoint? It is a sad thing to see such lack of moral principles reflected in this website.

    “The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.” –MAX BORN

  3. Author

    When evaluating the choice to go to War, one really should understand that the U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 8, explicitly assigns to Congress the right “To declare War…to raise and support armies.”

    My concern, which has never been articulated in the media or by our “leaders” is that on December 9, 1941 we experienced the LAST TIME an American Congress stood up, debated and voted to Declare War. Since then, we have fought Korea (56,000 KIA), Vietnam (16+ years and 58,000 KIA…not to mention wounded and another 50,000 post-war suicides), Grenada, Bosnia, Gulf I, Gulf II and now, Afghanistan as what I call “Commander in Chief Wars”.

    I appreciated David Kreiger’s analysis of the Obama Peace Prize speech, and realize that the President finds himself between the rock of his liberal no-war left supporters, and the hard spot of looking like a sissy president who backed down from his campaign words: “Afghanistan is a necessary war.”

    I have absolutely no idea whether this is good or not. No American not deeply imbued with hopefully hard intelligence really knows. Only history will tell us miles down the road. BUT for me, were I president, I would NOT take this huge 90,000 troop/Afghanistan operation on as “my war.”

    I am old enough to know Harry S Truman’s Korea decision left him with 23% popularity in 1952, and Lyndon Johnson with the full weight of Vietnam on his shoulders, left office without seeking a second term. My advice for presidents, use the Constitution. It is ethical, it will bring forth debate and it will rid you of the lonliness of office that doing these monstrous things as “Commander in Chief” bring forth.

    This is written as a combat officer in Vietnam, for whom my personal realization that my war was totally unnecessary and wasteful, took twenty years. Make them VOTE; stand up and VOTE on war. Declare it, then WIN IT. Or don’t go.

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