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The reluctant warrior

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Kathleen Parker
December 10, 2009
— After Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, anyone still questioning whether he is really a Christian, rather than a Muslim aligned with fanaticism, needs to seek therapy forthwith.

Anyone still unconvinced that Obama is really an American committed to his nation’s values, rather than an imposter who doesn’t pledge allegiance to his critics’ satisfaction, should probably surrender to the asylum.


Obama’s speech, an artful balance of realism and idealism, was both a Judeo-Christian epistle, conceding the moral necessity of war, and a meditation on American exceptionalism. He was, in other words, the unapologetic president of the United States and not some errant global villager seeking affirmation.


The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama, from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader.


Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves.


Paying homage to champions of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, he nonetheless acknowledged that as commander in chief charged with protecting a nation, he couldn’t follow their examples alone.


“For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’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.”


With those words, Obama aligned himself with conservatives, who believe in both the fallibility of human nature and in an enduring moral order. At the same time, he left room for moral conundrum: the difficulty of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable truths—“that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”


Obama didn’t mention his favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, but Niebuhr’s thoughts were woven throughout. In just one example, Obama said, “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”


Niebuhr said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”


Like Niebuhr, who during World War II abandoned his pacifist-liberal roots to become an advocate for war, Obama has left the comfortable world of consensus-building to become a war president, recently deciding to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. His journey undoubtedly has been painful as he arrived at this unfamiliar destination: “Some will kill. Some will be killed.”


No presidential candidate can ever fully anticipate the burden of the office he seeks until he sends his first troops to battle. Obama has joined the procession of others who have suffered in advance of the coming death toll. The moral conflict he expressed in words soon enough will find expression in his face.


Though the Oslo speech follows others that have inspired even his critics, this was Obama’s most presidential. This one marked the moment when Obama became a leader, defined as an individual who chooses the hard road because he believes it is the right one.


Some of the machinations of Obama’s own justifications were evident in the text. He made a point, for example, of implying that his Afghanistan war is more justified than George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Speaking of the two engagements, he said: “One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek.”


He took pains to note that other wars, especially “holy wars,” are never justified. And finally, “war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.”


And so the reluctant warrior, who set out to save the world from pestilence, plague and global warming, now must also wage war against both an ideological foe as well as his own temperament. Leadership is not for cowards.


Of the 4,000 or so words Obama uttered, those most soothing to American ears, if not so much to those sitting in closer proximity, were Obama’s paean to the sacrifices and gifts of his countrymen. He reminded the world that, whatever mistakes we’ve made, the United States has shed its blood and spent its treasure to enable democracy, and to promote peace and prosperity around the world.


There is much about Obama’s administration to criticize. But at certain moments, the president articulates our problems in ways that elevate us beyond our pettier differences. His Nobel Prize may have been all the things critics have listed, but Obama’s response was a triumphant expression of American values and character.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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