03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did President Obama Bend History in Oslo?

President Obama yesterday in Oslo delivered the memorable speech of his first year in office, eleven months marked by overexposure in appearances and speeches, as well as a public rhetoric that has become too familiar. Now one great speech a year is no small accomplishment. And surely the president was able to give it, just after his lackluster attempt at West Point to parse his strategy for the Afghanistan War, because he had had to drill down to figure out exactly how it had come to pass that he, a war president, was accepting a prize for peace. An intelligent man, he must have known that our European allies would not receive his Nobel Lecture with enthusiasm. As a naive presidential aspirant, he had made that mistake, in Berlin, when he had assumed that he could tell young Europeans that their countries had to do more in Afghanistan and that they would hear him.

The Nobel Lecture likely was the one speech Barack Obama did not want to make. That reluctance, paradoxically, contributed to its heft. Here the president lays out the scope of a new foreign policy -- multi-faceted, breathtakingly ambitious given our current resources, employing various forms of engagement, complicated and open to misinterpretation -- that likely will determine American choices as far as the quarter-century mark. Since Barack Obama has the unnerving ability to say exactly what he means, no more and no less -- and usually does -- we will be studying his Nobel Lecture for a long time to come.

Our president threaded together his argument in Oslo with the kind of remarks we heard from his Republican predecessors: "Evil does exist in the world." Obama recognized "the imperfection of man and the limits of reason." But he does not glorify in any warrior-culture way the necessary enterprise to battle evil, for "war promises human tragedy." It is a stark vision, only partly mitigated by his repetition of his belief in "a gradual evolution of human institutions."

The Oslo speech, on the surface, seems to be a reiteration of the argument for "a just war." President Obama presents the idea of the just war in that World War Two context that we can easily grasp. But he goes on to warn, "it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war." Here is one of the cruxes of the Great Presidential Speech of 2009. The other is Obama's assertion of "the continued expansion of our moral imagination." He has the vague outlines of the territories ahead but cannot quite see them yet. This uncertainty is at this point a very good thing. Here is why. The Nobel Lecture is a rare instance of Obama calling out Islamic fundamentalists. At Oslo the President says that "no Holy War can ever be a just war." The problem is that holy warriors also believe -- and usually much more firmly than an American president with an existentially-inclined faith -- that theirs is the cause of justice.

There are few absolutes in this world, but one would seem to be that you cannot go to war against religion and win. Just as President Obama said in Oslo that we must "bend history in the direction of justice," so Islamic fundamentalists (and a few Christian ones as well) are trying to do the same thing. The devil is in the detail of the definition of justice. Barack Obama seems to have an almost-willful belief that what he calls at Oslo "this law of love" is the prime mover of the world's great religions. He says that peace is the heart of Islam. But Mohammed and his wives rode out to conquer Mecca and then Arabia. After his death, Mohammed's descendants had taken by conquest most of the eastern Roman Mediterranean within a decade. There have been Christian, Hindu and Buddhist empires as well, of course; nevertheless, the challenge in our time is to deal with the resurgence of Islam not as a religion (although that is happening, as well) but as a political entity.

This is the biggest difficulty for President Obama in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many of the insurgencies are driven by faith. They will not be bought off, or assuaged, or "degraded." They are in this battle for the long term. But our President, as his Nobel Lecture shows, is also driven by a long vision. One or more among his multiple approaches suggested in Oslo will be the key to making the war against a new caliphate not a war against religion.

As he did at West Point, and also at his press conference with the Norwegian Prime Minister before the Nobel Lecture, President Obama mentioned American agricultural expertise as a tool in this war. "Helping farmers feed their own people," he said in the lecture. Here is one of the fronts in this new foreign policy, strengthened by Obama's pressure for expeditiousness (once a decision has been made) that is already transforming the implementation of policy. At last, government bureaucracy seems to be catching the pace of the modern age. Although it is the Christmas season, many of the civilian volunteers and experts in agriculture are training over these few weeks and then leave immediately for Afghanistan.