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Reaction To Obama's Nobel Speech

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now some reactions to the speech from Richard Haass, who used to be President Bush's head of policy planning at the State Department, from Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC, and first from Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. She calls the speech powerful in the way it confronted the paradox of receiving the peace prize just after escalating the Afghan war.

Ms. KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL (Editor and Publisher, The Nation): I take away from it that President Obama is an ethical realist. It was a speech grounded in realism with elements of idealism. And I, Robert, thought it was building on the quartet of major speeches he's given in this past year beginning to layout in Obama doctrine - speeches in Cairo, Prague, Moscow and Ankara. So, it was an important speech and directly you could see why the Nobel Committee awarded him this prize. It was a rebuke to the unilateralism, the jingoism of the Bush years. This speech had a humility and grace while confronting the paradoxes.

SIEGEL: But you seem to be resolving this conflict between the wartime president, who's escalated the U.S. operation in Afghanistan and the peace prize winner, and the speech about peace rather easily. I'm surprised. I'm surprised you're not more stuck on that one.

Ms. HEUVEL: One of the factors of life in America, I think, Robert, is complexity. And while I, and the magazine I edit, have been in full opposition to both the Bush administration and its war in Iraq and to the war it bequeathed the Obama administration and the war he is making his own, one also has to understand that there is a fight ahead, that no great change comes without struggle from below, which President Obama spoke of. And he spoke of those who truly have fought for change from below like Martin Luther King Jr.

And I think it is up to the people, not only in the United States, but this world, to push him to live up to the words he spoke in the speech which was a complex speech. It was a, kind of a speech that could be taught in a college course on just war and America's role in the world. And that's why I am both interested in its complexity, but I'm also aware of the fact that he is a war president who is presiding over the escalation of a war that this country need not fight to be more secure and that may endanger his role in the world that he seeks.

SIEGEL: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher of The Nation, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. HEUVEL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And now to Richard Haass who is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Haass, the speech by a wartime president receiving a peace prize, your sense, how did President Obama pull off that fairly tricky assignment?

Dr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Well, the shorthand is that he pulled it off and I think he pulled it off not just quite well, but extremely well. More broadly, I thought this was a really smart thoughtful speech where he essentially pointed out the complexities and the textures of the issue. And I thought people learned a lot if they listened closely.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you your sense of this event as a speech about international relations. President Obama, as he acknowledged, was given this prize as much in anticipation of what he is to do as in recognition of accomplishments. It's what he's said he will do. But saying this only is of prize-winning seriousness because he is the president of the United States. This prize has much to do with expectations of the role that the U.S. should play in the world.

Dr. HAASS: Oh, it's in some ways all about that and there's a history of that. On several occasions the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to say human rights activists not because necessarily of what they have accomplished but as a way of putting some wind behind their sails. What they maybe didn't bargain for, ironically enough, was the heavy dose of realism they got today. This was, in many ways, a speech that many of the previous presidents could have delivered, talking about the important contribution that U.S. foreign policy makes to the security of the world, speaking about evil in the world. This was pretty realistic stuff and I'm not sure the more pacifist or idealist types who comprise the Nobel committee necessarily anticipated that this is what they were going to hear.

SIEGE: Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Dr. HAASS: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And now to Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent of Newsweek and MSNBC. Howard, you've already described the speech as one that could have been written not just for past presidents but for the previous president, for George W. Bush.

Mr. HOWARD FINEMAN (Chief Political Correspondent, Newsweek): Well, I said in many ways that's true. Yes, the tone was humble. Yes, it was philosophical. Yes, it was complex. He talked about negotiations and banning torture and so forth, the importance of diplomacy. But I was struck, as somebody who covered the Bush administration, by how fundamentally he accepted some of the premises of George W. Bush's view of the world - the existence of evil. The president used the word terrorism several times. That's a word he's avoided in some recent speeches. He said no jihad could ever be a just war. No holy war could ever be just, but he said that in essence the war in Afghanistan was. Those are all notes I think that George W. Bush might well have struck.

SIEGEL: Why do you think President Obama gave such a speech? That - you would suggest here it's out of character?

Mr. FINEMAN: Well, first of all, I don't think it's entirely out of character. I think even though he came to prominence with that anti-war speech, anti-Iraq speech that he gave in 2002, his positions have always been much more nuanced and realistic than some of his most fervent supporters have thought. They weren't listening to everything he said. He's always been a realist. He's never been a pacifist. And he showed that by the decisions he's made recently.

SIEGEL: And his audience for this speech, who do you think it was?

Mr. FINEMAN: Well, it wasn't the people in Norway because they weren't applauding, and he skipped lunch and he skipped dinner very much in the Bush fashion to get back here to the United States. I think the audience was middle-class swing voters in the United States of America who elected him and who will decide his future.

SIEGEL: Howard Fineman, thank you very much for talking with us.

FINEMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Howard Fineman is chief political correspondent for Newsweek and MSNBC. We also heard from Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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