Listening to the president's Nobel Peace Prize speech, there were a number of things that any American would like. Like this:
The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions – not just treaties and declarations – that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: 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. The service and sacrifice of our 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. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
There were other good things, like Obama's defense of the war in Afghanistan. But overall, to my ear, at least, the speech had a flat and uncompelling quality to it. Why?
First, it was a speech Obama didn't want to make. It's odd when you start an address accepting a great honor by recognizing the painfully obvious fact that you don't deserve it. Many speeches begin with a note of false humility — “I'd like to thank the Academy for this award, even though there were so many great performances this year” — but rarely is the humility as appropriate as Obama's. In any event, the speech lacked a certain life because the president's heart did not seem in it.
But the bigger problem is that Obama doesn't actually know what he was talking about. At the highest levels of human achievement, we honor people who have done great things. When they speak, we know they have a deep knowledge of their subject. When Dwight Eisenhower talks about waging war, we listen. When Steve Jobs talks about the computer revolution, we listen. When Martin Luther King talks about civil rights, we listen. When Lech Walesa talks about standing up to communism, we listen. We listen to hear the deep knowledge that such experience gives a speaker.
Barack Obama hasn't done anything that would warrant our listening to his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. It doesn't mean he doesn't know anything; if he gave a speech on, say, beating the Clintons at their own game, we would listen because he would have that kind of deep knowledge that brings real insight. But this? No.