First, we applaud the President for escaping his leftist patrons to articulate a relatively clear notion of just war. His speech was frank about the realities of persistent human violence. We particularly applaud this passage (even if it contains a misplaced semicolon as presented on the White House web site):
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 Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Even more than this commonsense observation, Obama stepped out of the left's control to argue for American exceptionalism, at least recently:
Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
Of course, it would take a fool to miss the implied criticism of the Iraq War, in such passages as these:
I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 42 other countries -- including Norway -- in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks. . . .
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait -- a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.
So the best that one can say about the Iraq War is that it is "winding down." It doesn't rank as "a conflict that America did not seek," or as one that the world recognized was necessary. Never mind the coalition that joined the United States in Iraq. Never mind the UN resolutions authorizing action if Saddam didn't abide by treaties and resolutions. Never mind that the outcome is a nation liberated of one of the most murderous dictators on the world stage.
Of course, if Obama had affirmed the justice of overthrowing Saddam, if he had gone as far as to affirm that wars can be just if they defeat tyrants and liberate the oppressed, he would have undermined every campaign speech he has ever made, include the ones he's delivered since being elected. So he remained complicit in the rationale for the award: Obama is not Bush.
We have other objections to elements of the speech. Obama rightly implies that other nations must take responsibility for global order, that the United States cannot be expected always to clean up the mess. But he offers no compelling vision to motivate that action. Yes, he said that genuine peace involves the "inherent rights and dignity" of individuals. But he gave no ringing call that the world's peoples should vigorously pursue that end. Apparently a call for freedom and justice sounds too much like the rhetoric of his predecessor. Worse, he suggests that nonmilitary actions like sanctions can somehow be made painful enough to force dastardly regimes to become less dastardly. We remain unsure on how trade embargoes will motivate murderous dictators to relinquish power. We do know that sanctions can impoverish the oppressed while the oppressors continue to enrich themselves. Slapping Myanmar's brutal dictatorship with something that hurts probably means more than expelling diplomats and restricting trade.
But most naively, Obama talked, albeit briefly, about a world without nuclear weapons. We excuse the young President if he was not yet interested in international affairs in the 1980s when Baroness Thatcher made the trenchant observation that nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented. Even if they could be effectively banned, if war broke out or even threatened, or if a nation had aggressive ambitions, there would simply be a highly dangerous, unstable race to build weapons first.
And of course, he had to triangulate in the middle of a false choice:
[W]ithin America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists -- a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.
I reject these choices.
It's like hearing "Free Bird" at a Lynard Skynard concert: no one is leaving until we get the "rejected false choice" trope. Hey Barry, reject a false choice!
Others have noted the inappropriate references to Nixon in China or Reagan negotiating nuclear treaties. Those diplomatic moves were potent precisely because they came from leaders distinguished by their uncompromising confrontation with the bad guys. Obama so far has been noted for wanting to improve America's PR, and despite his premature Nobel, he's been largely ignored. They'll only listen to the soft speaking if you carry a big stick.
Ending on a call to love as the teaching of all the world's religions was nice, if hackneyed. Acknowledging that military force is a grim necessity was excellent, even if muddled. Calling for diplomacy and development was pointless preaching to the choir, and dull preaching at that.
Shall we grade the speech? We shall. It was fluent and clear. It managed to say something important that we fully expected to be ignored. It ungraciously joined the Nobel Committee in giving Dubya a wedgie. It was downright stupid on nukes. It weakly resorted to cliches, especially at its end.
But we are a generous grader who likes to acknowledge what is good more than punish what is wrong. So we would assign a B-, except that it was articulate even in its banalities. So we reward the President with a B.
That's the kind of grade we figure he got at Columbia and Harvard, though no one knows, since Obama, unlike recent Presidential candidates, never released his transcripts.