Discuss as:

Obama defends 'just' war in Afghanistan

From NBC's Athena Jones
OSLO, Norway -- In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize today, President Obama defended the United States-led conflict in Afghanistan, emphasizing the role that war can play in helping to achieve peace.

Obama became the third sitting American president to win the prestigious award, founded by Swedish dynamite magnate Alfred Nobel in his 1895 will.

The Nobel Committee said it chose Obama for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy" (in particular his leadership on nuclear disarmament) and his work toward an international agreement to battle climate change. But his speech here came just a week after he announced plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 additional troops to the troubled country. He addressed head on the tension between being a wartime president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

"The most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars," the president told a packed Oslo City Hall, near the beginning of his 35-minute Nobel Lecture.

Obama described the war in Afghanistan as a just war and one that America did not seek -- reminding the audience that the 9/11 attacks originated from that country -- and he argued the fight there was necessary to defend America and the world from future attacks.

"I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," he said. "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 is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Obama defended the "right to act unilaterally," even as he said that America alone could not secure the peace in Afghanistan, in failed states, or unstable regions around the world.

During a joint press appearance earlier in the day, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced his country would contribute $110 million from 2010 to 2014 to help train Afghan security forces -- just the kind of European support the administration says will help bolster efforts to stabilize the region.

In his wide-ranging speech, the president invoked past Peace Prize winners from Martin Luther King, Jr., who was awarded the medal in 1964, to Poland's Lech Walesa. And Obama quoted John F. Kennedy, who called for a "gradual evolution in human institutions" to ensure an "attainable peace."

The president said a lasting peace would require "painstaking diplomacy" and the development of alternatives to violence, like sanctions, that are tough enough to change behavior. He spoke of the need to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons -- invoking Iran and North Korea by name -- and emphasized the importance of defending basic human rights and of remembering the similar aspirations of people of different races, religions, and cultures around the world.

Upon learning he won the award two months ago, Obama told journalists assembled in the Rose Garden that it was a "call to action" and an "affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations by people of all nations." Today, he also made a case for America's use of force and highlighted its diplomatic leadership around the world.

"The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world," he said. "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."

News of Obama's win sparked surprise, applause, and ridicule in the United States when it was announced in October. In his remarks today, the president acknowledged the "considerable controversy" surrounding his win, and said his accomplishments were "slight" when compared with past winners like Albert Schweitzer, George C. Marshall, and Nelson Mandela.

Obama, who was chosen from a record 205 nominations, has said he plans to donate the $1.4 million in prize money to charity.

Reactions to Obama receiving the prize
Some of the local reaction mirrored both the hope and the criticism that was expressed when the award was announced two months ago. Outside the Nobel Institute this morning, demonstrators held up a yellow banner reading "Obama You Won it Now Earn It."

"I think it is a bit premature," Anna Waage told NBC News the night before the Obamas arrived here. Waage said she was "embarrassed" on behalf of the Nobel Committee, because they awarded a man who had "not done a lot yet."

"He has a lot of good promises, but I think it would be good to give him some time to actually show that he is going to be able to follow through," Waage said.

In his speech introducing the president at the award ceremony, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland hailed him for calling for a global response to global challenges and defended the committee's selection of Obama as this year's winner.

"The question was actually quite simple: Who has done most for peace in the world the past year? If the question is put in Alfred Nobel's terms, the answer is relatively easy to find. It had to be U.S. President Barack Obama," Jagland said. "Only really does one person dominate the international politics to the same extent as Obama or in such a short space of time initiate so many and such major changes as Obama has done."

The hope among many both here and abroad is that the prize will help the president achieve his myriad goals. "Hopefully. it will lead to something which will make a better world," said another local, Norvald Bendiksen.