Barack Obama, a wartime president, yesterday underlined the gap between peace and the sometimes violent means required to achieve it as he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in a subdued ceremony in the Norwegian capital.
The awarding of the prestigious prize to the 48-year-old Mr Obama - only the third time in the 108-year history of the honour that it has been awarded to a sitting president - came only nine days after he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, adding to the nearly 70,000 already there. Meanwhile, there are still 115,000 American soldiers in Iraq, where a series of bombings on Wednesday, which killed 127 people and wounded another 400, was a reminder of another war that is far from over.
In his 36-minute address to about 1,000 guests gathered at Oslo City Hall, the US leader addressed the apparent paradox of awarding a peace prize to a sitting commander-in-chief overseeing two controversial wars. The use of arms in the cause of peace, he said, is occasionally necessary: "Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qa'eda'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."
While defending the use of military force under some circumstances, Mr Obama was quick to say that there are limits to the effectiveness of military force. Quoting the acceptance speech of a previous Nobel winner, Martin Luther King Jr, the US president said: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones." Back in the United States, the president's aides downplayed the honour, with the ceremonies in Oslo not even highlighted on the White House's website. Mr Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their small entourage were even to forgo a second day of Nobel-related festivities, lest in a time of war the president appear to be celebrating too excessively.
The results of a public opinion poll released earlier this week found that 66 per cent of American voters said Mr Obama did not deserve the prize. One commentator, the former Republican White House staffer Ed Rodgers, said that the events in Oslo were, from a domestic point of view, an "exercise in damage control". From the beginning, the peace award has been steeped in irony. It was established by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and the percussion blasting cap for whom the peace prize was, in particular, a kind of gilded penance for what his inventions had wrought.
In his address yesterday, the president acknowledged the sceptics, both at home and abroad. "I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labours on the world stage. Compared with some of the giants of history who have received this prize - my accomplishments are slight," said Mr Obama, adding that humanitarian aid workers and those jailed in pursuit of justice were "far more deserving" of the award than him.
Mr Obama made only a glancing reference to the Arab-Israel conflict, which he said had "hardened". Yet he did indicate that the fear of losing identity in a shrinking, more fast-paced world has led to a particular source of evil in the world today - the perversion of religion. The "great religion of Islam" has been defiled by those who have used it to justify the murder of innocents, he argued, adding: "These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war."
Later yesterday, the president was to watch a torchlight parade in his honour from the balcony of a downtown Oslo hotel, then attend a banquet. Demonstrators, some chanting, "Change: Stop the War in Afghanistan", planned to converge on the hotel. Earlier in the day, Mr and Mrs Obama visited the Norwegian Nobel Institute, where he praised past Nobel winners for giving "voice to the voiceless".
As he hovered over the guest book, writing a lengthy entry, the First Lady gently teased the president, according to The Associated Press. "You writing a book there?" the agency quoted the First Lady as saying. Asked by a Nobel official to add her own inscription, Mrs Obama quipped that "mine won't be as long". In reply, the president joked: "She will resist writing something sarcastic." Meanwhile, across the street from the institute, demonstrators gathered, waving a banner that summed up the attitude of many to the award, which comes with a US$1.4 million (Dh5.14m) prize. "Obama You Won It, Now Earn It," the placard said.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by agencies