In Defense of War to Advance Peace: The Obama Paradox

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

"Most of the coverage of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize award focused on the irony of it all. Here was a man with a brief record of accomplishment in his first year of office, a President of the United States, inheriting and now commanding two wars, receiving a prize for peace. Yet, Barack Obama's acceptance speech summoned up the wisdom of the ages to address mankind's struggle to rationalize the worst manifestation of human behavior: war.

Here he was, just for a brief moment returning to his law professor role in a classroom at the University of Chicago, explaining how "philosophers and clerics and statesmen [sought] to regulate the destructive power of war." The war of choice in Iraq had many refreshing their understanding of the "just war" concept. Now here was a President inviting a worldwide audience to consider whether his decision to expand what he has called "a war of necessity" in Afghanistan meets the tests of self defense, proportionality and the protection of civilians. This was not the stuff of most presidential addresses.

The President quickly passed over the 20th Century wars that had both shocked humankind and drove it to ever more precise international mechanisms to avoid war. "This old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats," he said. Terrorism and modern technology, wars within nations, these were the new threats of the current century. How does our effort to thwart these modern evils parse with just war theory? "There will be times," the President said," when nations...will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." And the United States, he correctly stated, is often the only nation whose force can be effective against these threats.

Before his Nobel lecture, few noticed that his major speech the week before on Afghanistan was laced throughout with the underpinnings of the "just war" doctrine, a doctrine with roots developed by Cicero, Saint Augustine, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, for the justification "of going to and for waging war." In both his Afghanistan and Oslo remarks, the President rested his case on well established foundational principles, more recently embedded, also, in the UN Charter and the Geneva Convention.

Military action is justifiable as an act of sovereign policy when necessary and proportionate for self-defense. But before the war can be just, there must be a just cause for the war. When a rational process of reasoning is impossible and when there is rightful intention, then force in resolving the conflict may be necessary as the last resort in the defense and protection of self and others. Moreover, once the cause for military action has been justified and found necessary, the proportionality of the response to the enemy's aggression must be carefully considered and implemented. Excessive means in conducting a war is not justified.

Clearly, in both speeches the President relied on the just war defense for establishing that the cause and recourse of the force is proportionate in Afghanistan to the needs of self defense for the United States and others.

The methods used to pursue the enemy are always subject to review. For example, a rationale for the Iraq war involved weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that were never found. We assume that actions are taken in a war zone because field commanders have evidence of a threat, but this cannot always be the case. This poses a moral and intellectual dilemma.

Perhaps the most challenging moral question we face in an irregular environment such as Afghanistan -- and along the Pakistan border -- involves the use of imperfect intelligence information and the need to act quickly, even remotely, using unmanned drones. In the week after the Nobel ceremony, it was reported that there have been even more drone attacks against suspected terrorists than in the previous administration. Are these justified? Who orders these attacks? The President or the CIA Director? Or someone even further down the chain of command? We may assume that this highly classified process meets the "just war" test for post-hoc accountability -- evidence of threat and proportionality. Certainly the Congressional Intelligence Committees have an obligation to assure that these standards are being met.

President Obama's "just war" speeches also included and answered, importantly, the more contemporary Powell Doctrine: "Is the political objective important, clearly defined and understood? Have all nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation be altered, once it is altered by force?"

Most people have forgotten that this doctrine, in addition, calls for an "exit strategy" -- "a time table for victory and withdrawal." Carefully, the Obama speeches crafted and answered each core question raised both by the Powell Doctrine and the historical "just war" doctrine.

Few recent presidents have articulated so clearly and coherently an approach to military action and defense of the country. The court of public opinion will remain in deliberation over a war over which President Obama has assumed ownership. Only an historical perspective will tell us whether this war was worth the sacrifice and whether it met the high standards of a "just war."