Obama's Lincolnesque Nobel Peace Prize

Who expected, two months ago when the surprise award was announced, that President Barack Obama, in accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, would deliver a speech that in many respects is about the ethics of war?

Obama has surprised many with his escalations in Afghanistan, and in winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I was surprised by his winning the Nobel. It's undeserved, as I wrote here on the Huffington Post right after it happened two months ago.

But Obama's emergence as more the liberal warrior than the reflexive dove surprises me not in the least, for I was paying close attention to what the president said and wrote before and during his campaign.

President Barack Obama accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in Oslo, Norway. Obama said that he wants to continue working on issues that are critical for building lasting peace and security in the world.

Obama doesn't deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Not because he is not a good president -- which doesn't mean I like everything he does, or doesn't -- but because his policies are still in motion, the multiple situations they address still in flux.

Setting aside the possibility that Obama was selected because he's not George W. Bush, I think the president got the Nobel for his great speeches. Principally, his outstanding speech to the Islamic world in Cairo six months ago. It's terrific outreach and a fine repositioning of America after, well, eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. As public diplomacy, it's brilliant. Yet it's very incomplete.

Obama's engagement of mainstream Islam, which so impressed the Nobel committee, is a great, and absolutely necessary, complement to Obama's engagement of extremist Islam. Which is not generally the stuff of peace prizes. Perhaps after a war, as with Woodrow Wilson, but not in the midst of a war.

A pensive Obama discussed his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

I recall talking last year with right-wingers who had talked themselves into believing that Obama was really a dangerous peacenik radical who would disarm America and let Al Qaeda, with which he not so secretly sympathized, run rampant across the world. When I pointed out what Obama was actually saying and doing -- yes, he was against the Iraq War from the start, not because it was a war but because it was a stupid war -- they couldn't see it. That's how strong a hold the picture they'd hysterically painted for themselves had over their minds.

It was quite bizarre. For Obama always said the more important struggle against jihadism was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not Iraq. He advocated escalation in Afghanistan and stepped-up strikes at Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre in Pakistan, using both drone air strikes and special operations forces.

So much so that the Bush/Cheney White House, not to mention Hillary Clinton, sharply criticized Obama for being too aggressive.

The Obamas arriving in Oslo, Norway.

They also sharply criticized Obama for his willingness to talk with all parties, including Syria and Iran.

This is a president who believes in soft power and hard power, and sees them both on the same continuum. It was all there in his campaign statements and in his writings, for those who actually read his best-selling books.

Lincoln is Obama's professed ideal. We remember Lincoln today from sugar-coated civics lessons and the magnificent monument in Washington, but the historical reality is that he was both soaring idealist and ruthless pragmatist. Consider this key passage from The Audacity of Hope:

"I'm left then with Lincoln, who like no man before or since understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation. We remember him for the firmness and depth of his convictions -- his unyielding opposition to slavery and his determination that a house divided could not stand. But his presidency was guided by a practicality that would distress us today, a practicality that led him to test various bargains with the South in order to maintain the Union without war; to appoint and discard general after general, strategy after strategy, once war broke out; to stretch the Constitution to the breaking point in order to see the war through to a successful conclusion. I like to believe that for Lincoln, it was never a matter of abandoning principle for expediency. Rather, it was a matter of maintaining within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas -- that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence."

When he first learned of it in October, Obama said that he was surprised that he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

To grasp what Obama wrote is to be unsurprised by the direction of what he is doing.

Which is not to say that the specifics of what Obama is presently doing in Afghanistan are wise. I don't think we need to do all that to disrupt Al Qaeda and to deny it bases in Afghanistan. As I've written more than a few times.

Yet Lincoln tried a number of things that didn't work out before hitting on the right formula, while always focused on his North Star.

Perhaps it will be so with Obama. I certainly hope so. The difference at hand today is that Lincoln wasn't awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1862. The North had stopped the South at the Battle of Antietam, and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but the work was far from being successfully concluded.