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Obama's Nobel balancing act

Mark Mardell | 06:22 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009

obamanobel_ap226.jpgThe president of war and peace appears to have pulled off a difficult balancing act, by refusing to bask in the glow of merely being the "anti-Bush". In Oslo, Obama told his European audience what many Americans will see as some hard truths.

One Fox News commentator, I didn't catch his name, said rather reluctantly that he liked the speech, and its insistence that force was sometimes necessary and that American power was an expression of this moral force. Adding: "Of course, I didn't like all that Guantanamo stuff."

But, of course, this was part of the balance: the strong insistence that America, too, had to obey what the president called "the rules of the road", along with the very strong preference that nations should act together.

One news agency went so far as to headline their story "Unlikely support: GOP loved Obama's Nobel speech". For the new bloods of the Grand Old Party (Republicans), love is not the first emotion that springs to their hearts when the president speaks, but some of the older hands were certainly reassured.

ABC's respected White House correspondent Jake Tapper suggested this was an important moment, proclaiming the speech "nothing short of the Obama Doctrine - the most comprehensive view we've been offered yet of how the president views foreign policy".

The speech reads very well and feels very sophisticated, but how does it boil down? Of course, the heart of it is that war is folly rather than something to be celebrated but sometimes a folly that is the only course. International institutions and diplomacy are always better than going it alone.

But what makes a war just? Here the president is as expansively hazy as UK Prime Minister Tony Blair ever was: self defence; preventing an aggressor invading another nation; stopping civil war or slaughter of civilians by their own government.

But he talks also of engaging with bad regimes and developing "alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behaviour", adding that the closer the international community stands together "the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression".

He said that peace is not just the absence of war but democracy and freedom of speech, although he uses fresher phrases: "I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear."

He ended on a rousing flourish of high-minded optimism which is worth quoting in full:

"The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached - their fundamental faith in human progress - that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith - if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace - then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass."

It's almost enough to make you think cynicism is not a virtue and it was certainly good enough to warm the hearts of doubters on both sides of the debate.

Yet with the deadline for Iran's compliance on the nuclear issue just a few weeks away, I was left wondering what the "alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behaviour" would actually look like.

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