By CHUCK RAASCH, Gannett National Writer
December 10. 2009 3:03PM
WASHINGTON — In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, President Barack Obama made a case for "just" war and American unilateralism.
In an address in Oslo, Norway, Obama was personally apologetic but an aggressive defender of the United States.
He described himself as less worthy than prize-winning predecessors, including Martin Luther King Jr., and the dissidents and activists for peace and human rights imprisoned or persecuted around the globe today.
While acquiescing to criticism in the United States that this award had come too early for him, Obama also answered critics back home who have accused him of being an American apologist:
• He defended the United States' role as the remaining military superpower.
• He reminded his European audience of past American sacrifice in two world wars that began on that continent and of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
The speech illustrated how Obama has changed after nearly a year in office.
Seventeen months ago, as a candidate for the presidency, the then senator told a huge crowd in Berlin about his desire for a more humble American foreign policy. But the audacious hope of 2008 is newly tempered by the inescapable reality of each morning's national security threat matrix.
"As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence," Obama said. "I know there's nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing nave — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
"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 on the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world."
He added: "I, like any head of state, reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation."
On that point, there is no daylight between Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used the same doctrine to invade Iraq.
Obama mentioned war 44 times and peace 32 in his speech. He lauded the disparate peace-seeking efforts of previous presidents: John F. Kennedy's moral case for American leadership, Richard Nixon's engagement of communist power China, and Ronald Reagan's confrontation of a crumbling Soviet empire.
"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," he said. "The service and sacrifice of our citizens and the strength of men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans."
Further, he said, the world cannot turn a blind eye to hostile states seeking nuclear arms or repressing their people. In that context, Obama singled out Iran and North Korea, two of the three "axis of evil" members that Bush singled out after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Such passages could quiet critics who say Obama's foreign policy has been too apologetic, his way forward too accommodating of despotic regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang.
In Berlin last year, Obama said that his country had "made our share of mistakes" and had "not lived up to our best intentions." The United States had a long way to go, Obama said then, "to form a more perfect union."
In his Nobel speech, he acknowledged his decisions to end torture of suspected terrorists and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But he focused more on the urgency of defeating the new enemies of peace — "a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale."
The Peace Prize is now a credential. The post-award realities remain.
In a testament to the lonely position he now occupies, Obama acknowledged the paradox of a Nobel Peace Prize winner who just ordered 30,000 more troops to a war in Afghanistan.
"Some will kill," Obama said, "and some will be killed."
Chuck Raasch is national political writer for Gannett. His column, New Politics, appears here and on USA TODAY.com. A native of South Dakota and a graduate of South Dakota State University, Raasch has covered political campaigns since 1978, including Tom Daschle's first race for Congress and George McGovern's last race for the Senate. He has covered presidential campaigns since 1988.