Q: Is there such a thing as a ‘just war’? In his Nobel speech, was President Obama right to speak in these theological terms about war? He also stated that ‘no holy war can ever be a just war.’ Do you agree or disagree?
President Obama sounded like he was channeling Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, speaking more about the justification for war than the making of peace and arguing that military force is the primary path to address injustice in an imperfect world.
While he cited Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as moral examples, he distanced himself from them as being unrealistic.
“I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms,” argued Obama. “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism–it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
Obama asserted: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight.”
As one who tilts toward Niebuhr and believes that military force is sometimes needed in a sinful world, I have an ear for Obama’s position. I think he is right that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”
Yet for all the bluster about realism, Obama and his pro-war party are the ones who have abandoned realism. They have forsaken one of the rules of a just war: reasonable chance of success.
More war to end war is not just war in Afghanistan–for there is a low probability of success.
Obama repeated two words throughout his speech at the United States Military Academy, where he called for an escalation of the war: “capacity” and “transition.” What he meant by capacity and transition were ambiguous. If by capacity, he means that the corrupt Afghan government will become less corrupt, then what is the reasonable hope of that success? If he thinks that after eight years training tens of thousands of more Afghan soldiers–to join the unimpressive Afghan armed forces–will allow the U.S. and its allies to leave behind a stable government, then is Obama really being realistic?
Just war rules are valuable tools for moral discernment in a pluralistic society. And we had better start using them if we are going to be moral realists about war in Afghanistan.