Why Obama Flunks the "Just War" Test

Whether Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize is not the point. He didn’t. The fact is, he got it, and was gifted with the chance of a lifetime to make a classic speech on the politics of peace-making, a speech that in the glare of Nobel could have attained instant standing.

He failed miserably, producing a hodge-podge that resembled the work of a bright but undisciplined sophomore.

He was hoist on the  petard of  classical “just war theory,” a theory that, properly understood, condemns his decision to send yet more kill-power into Afghanistan.

This theory which is much misused and little understood is designed to build a wall of assumptions against state-sponsored violence, i.e. war. It puts the burden of proof on the warrior where it belongs.

It gives six conditions necessary to justify a war. Fail one, and the war is immoral. The six are:

(1) A just cause. The only just cause is defense against an attack, not a preemptive attack on those who might someday attack us. Obama flunked this one, saying our current military actions are “to defend ourselves and all nations from further [i.e. future] attacks.” President Bush speaks here through the mouth of President Obama.

(2) Declaration by competent authority: Article one Section 8 of the Constitution which gives this power to the Congress has not been used since 1941. Congressional resolutions instead yield the power to the President. Obama: “I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land.” Sorry. Not according to the Constitution.

On top of that we are bound by treaty to the United Nations Charter. Article 2, Section 4 prohibits recourse to military force except in circumstances of self-defense which was restricted to responses to a prior “armed attack” (Article 51), and only then until the Security Council had the chance to review the claim.

Obama fails twice on proper declaration of war. He violates the UN Charter by claiming the right to act “unilaterally” and “individually.” Again, faithful echoes of President Bush.

(3) Right intention: This means that there is reasonable surety that the war will succeed in serving justice and making a way to real peace.
Right intention is befouled by excessive secrecy, by putting the burdens of the war on the poor or future generations, by denying the right to conscientious object to soldiers who happen to know most of what is going on, and by a failure to understand the enemy’s grievances.

Obama declares gratuitously: “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” So all we can do is send soldiers to kill them? Really? What negotiations have been tried to find out why they hate us and not Sweden, or Argentina, or China?

A pause for reflection might show that those and other countries are not bombing and killing civilians in three Muslim countries simultaneously. That could generate a little resentment. None of those countries not targeted by al Qaeda are financing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands in violation of UN resolutions.

The processes of negotiation allow light to shine in dark corners. Realpolitik eschews the light.

(4) The principle of discrimination, or non-combatant immunity. The science of war has made this condition so unachievable that only the policing paradigm envisioned by the UN Charter could ever justify state-sponsored violence.

Police operate within the constraints of law, as a communitarian effort, with oversight and follow-up review to prevent undue violence. Obama’s allusion to “42 other countries” joining in our violent work in Afghanistan and Iraq mocks the true intent of the collective action envisioned by the UN under supervision of the Security Council.

It is a mere disguise for our vigilante adventurism.

(5) Last resort. If state-sponsored violence is not the last resort we stand morally with hoodlums who would solve problems by murder. Obama fails to see that modern warfare, including counterinsurgency, is not the last or best resort against an enemy that has four unmatchable advantages: invisibility, versatility, patience, and the ability to find safe haven anywhere.

The idea of a single geographic safe haven is a myth and an anachronism reflecting the age of whole armies mobilizing in a definable locus.
Obama’s speech showed no appreciation of the alternative of peace-making.

A Department of Peace (which would be a better name for a revitalized and better-funded State Department) would have as its goal to address in concert with other nations tensions as they begin to build.

Neglected crises can explode eventually into violence. This is used to assert the inevitability of war when it is only an indictment of improvident statecraft.

(6) The principle of proportionality: Put simply, the violence of war must do more good than harm. In judging war the impact on other nations and the environment must also be assessed in the balance sheet of good and bad results.

This is a hard test for modern warriors to pass. Victory in war is an oxymoron. No one wins a war: one side may lose less and may spin that as victory. Obama’s faith in the benefits of warring in three Muslim countries is delusional.

President Obama in Oslo was more a theologian than a statesman. He gave a condescending nod to nonviolent power but his theology of original sin tilted him toward violence as the surest and final arbiter for a fallen humanity.

It is “a pity beyond all telling” that the “just war theory” he invoked condemns the warring policies he anomalously defended as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace.

DANIEL C. MAGUIRE, a professor of moral theological ethics at Marquette University, is the author of The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy.


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