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President Obama Accepts Peace Prize

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Oslo, Norway, today at the Ornate City Hall President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Obama directly addressed what many have seen as a contradiction. He receives the award in the same month that he announced a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

NPR's Don Gonyea was at the ceremony in Oslo.

(Soundbite of music)

DON GONYEA: The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner accompanied by the first lady entered the room to a trumpet fanfare as the audience stood and applauded, anxious to hear what this man, known for his ability to mark a moment with a powerful speech, would say on the subject of peace. The president began by voicing humility, a response to those who suggest he's getting the honor way too soon.

President BARACK OBAMA: Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize - Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela - my accomplishments are slight.

GONYEA: But the question of the day was just how he would address his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He got to the topic right away. He said it is a war the U.S. did not seek.

Pres. OBAMA: Still we are at war. I'm responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land and some will kill and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict.

GONYEA: But then came something few in the audience likely expected: the president's spoke of peace as an ideal but then argued that war is sometimes necessary, that it can be just and moral. He spoke of a past Nobel laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached of the moral force of nonviolence and of Gandhi who had inspired King.

Pres. OBAMA: But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is. And cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people, for make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.

GONYEA: He called it an irreconcilable truth that war is sometimes necessary. He clearly was putting Afghanistan in that context. In dealing with oppressive regimes, he said nations need to stand firmly together, but that exhortations promoting human rights must also be coupled with what he called painstaking diplomacy. He seemed to be talking about Iran here.

Pres. OBAMA: I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach, condemnation without discussion can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

GONYEA: The president also spoke of how addressing such issues as climate change and global economic development are part of the security debate, as they can improve lives by helping provide stability. He ended by returning to Dr. King and Gandhi. He said we can live by their example even as we wrestle with conflicts that seem hard to reconcile.

Pres. OBAMA: We can admit the intractability of deprivation and still strive for dignity, clear-eyed we can understand that there will be war and still strive for peace. We can do that for that is the story of human progress. That's the hope of all the world and at this moment of challenge that must be our work your honor.

GONYEA: It was a speech but also a philosophical discussion, a rumination on the use of power and the military by a president wrestling with and justifying the difficult decisions his office requires.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Oslo, Norway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.