Obama and just war

The concept of ‘just war’ is one with deep roots in philosophy and law – a recognition that while wars are inevitably terrible, sometimes they are less terrible than the alternatives available. While it may have been incongruous of Barack Obama to use his Nobel Peace Prize address to discuss the subject, it was probably the only reasonable thing he could do, given his commitment to a sustained (but shrinking) presence in Iraq and his re-commitment to the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, when I first heard about the decision of the Nobel committee, I thought Obama’s best choice would be to graciously decline the prize, saying that he had not yet accomplished anything worthy of it, and was involved in the prosecution of two wars, to boot.

Obama’s sketch of the philosophy of just war includes elements of both jus ad bellum – the question of when it is right to go to war – and jus in bello – the question of how to rightly conduct yourself during war:

The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

He also stresses how the elimination of violent conflict is not a plausible aim, for the decades ahead:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

He discusses the ways in which contemporary conflicts differ from those in more distant history, describes how American military strength has helped to maintain international stability in recent decades, and argues that some enemies can only be effectively confronted with violence. He also expresses support for the concept of humanitarian intervention, arguing that in cases like the Balkans, it can be justified to use force to stop crimes against humanity, even when doing so is a violation of traditional notions of state sovereignty

At the same time as he argues for the occasional necessity of war, Obama recognizes that war always involves horror:

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

Obama’s solution, for reducing the degree to which war is terrible and frequent, is to increase the strength of international institutions, though he doesn’t go so far as to say that the United States will never act unilaterally.

Obama brings up the issue of nuclear proliferation, but does not specify how far he would go to prevent it or roll it back:

One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I’m working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles.

But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.

Earlier, he talks about developing “alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior”, but he does not follow through and explain at what point sanctions should be abandoned in favour of the use of force, though perhaps that question is always too complex to answer with a general formula applicable to all circumstances.

All told, the speech is a thoughtful and defensible one that tries to reconcile principle with pragmatism. At its best, the United States is a key force for stability in the world, as well as the promotion of democracy and human rights. At the same time, it is very plausible that the relative power of the United States will continue to fall, producing difficult new situations in which to make foreign policy.

Obama doesn’t mention the difficulties of domestic politics – one major factor that has hampered him in trying to close down Guantanamo Bay – but that is certainly one of the biggest factors constraining his freedom of movement. Obama has certainly disappointed a lot of people by not changing foreign policy as swiftly or dramatically as they would have liked. It is not entirely clear to what extent that is the product of him being president, rather than a candidate; to what extent it is the result of domestic constraints; and to what extent it is the result of other factors. He closes in saying: “Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.” It remains to be seen how that aspiration will stand beside the totality of his record as president.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “Obama and just war”

  1. Obama also mentions climate change, saying:

    And that’s why helping farmers feed their own people – or nations educate their children and care for the sick – is not mere charity. It’s also why the world must come together to confront climate change. There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement – all of which will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and environmental activists who call for swift and forceful action – it’s military leaders in my own country and others who understand our common security hangs in the balance.

    If we fail to prevent catastrophic climate change, that blunder will look enormously worse in the eyes of history than America’s recent debacle in Iraq.

  2. if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence

    I wonder how he squares this with his policy of assassination-by-drone.

  3. I’m amazed how long this Obama-worship has continued, long past the time when it has become obvious that he almost entirely pursues the same foreign policy as the Bush administration.

  4. “nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty.”

    Really – so what is Obama’s stance on Israel joining the NPT? And what is Obama’s stance on Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power?

    Ideology, in one of its meaning, is the name for the refusal to apply the same standards to different situations because it offends power. You are quite quick to point out this type of hypocrisy when it concerns climate change – but very slow to point it out when it concerns US imperialism.

  5. Non-proliferation requires openness about which nations possess nuclear capabilities. Israel may justify its stance through reference to its own security, but that only carries water on a short term analysis.

    [Obama] almost entirely pursues the same foreign policy as the Bush administration.
    Almost, but not quite. And the differences are not entirely irrelevant. I would still (marginally) rather Obama’s form of empire than Bush’s.

  6. For anyone probing the origins of today’s global order, the book’s most interesting parts have to do with international justice. Here again, it argues, conventional wisdom misleads. Most people assume that the post-1945 understanding of crimes against humanity has its origins in the trials of Nuremburg and Tokyo; the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which most countries, though not America, Russia or China, now belong, is seen as a child of Nuremburg.

    Mr Plesch corrects this half-truth. The real antecedent of today’s war-crimes tribunals is an honourable but little-known body that was established in October 1943 and closed in 1948—the 17-nation United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC). With a secretariat in London, this small, robust agency worked to establish the idea that “war crimes” could include atrocities perpetrated by tyrants against their own citizens. However obvious that might seem now, the notion was resisted by those in Britain and America who felt that it violated an ancient principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. But the commission fought back, drawing moral support from Jewish and Christian leaders, and the exiled governments of small European states. In some ways stronger than today’s ICC, the commission was a clearing house for evidence on war crimes, and a debating forum for the definition of such crimes; above all it helped national courts to try egregious atrocities.

    The commission’s files, now in New York, are hard to access. Mr Plesch believes its closure in 1948 reflects a change in policy by Germany’s American occupiers who in 1947, for example, recruited a former Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie, as an agent.

    The book argues convincingly that the work of the UNWCC was in many ways more important than that of the Nuremburg tribunal. But what does that imply for international justice 60 years later, as the ICC still struggles to achieve credibility? Some may simply conclude that today’s Hague-based court needs boosting. But perhaps a better way of honouring the UNWCC would be to emulate its best achievement: offering practical support to national judiciaries which are struggling, against multiple odds, to deal with war crimes committed on their soil. In 2011, as in 1943, efforts to outlaw and punish the most horrific deeds need to be pragmatic, and well-adapted to local realities, as well as spectacular and utopian.

  7. The incident also underscored the increasingly central role that drones now play in American foreign policy. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

  8. Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

    “He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”


  9. But in Afghanistan, Iraq and, most of all, in Syria, the Obama doctrine—let us call it that—has had terrible consequences.

    In Afghanistan, Mr Obama’s long-debated troop surge was fatally undermined when he announced that American forces would start to come home within 18 months. He repeated the error in May 2014, saying that the residual American force in Afghanistan would be fully withdrawn by the end of 2016. He has had to reverse that foolish promise. But by setting timetables for forced reductions unconnected to conditions on the ground, Mr Obama has given encouragement to the Taliban and left Afghan forces cruelly exposed.

    Mr Obama’s decision to pull all American forces out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was even more disastrous. He used the excuse of the difficulty of negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqis to do what he wanted to do anyway. Had a few thousand American troops been left in Iraq, Mr Obama and his team would have known much more about the Maliki government’s subversion of the US-trained and US-equipped Iraqi security forces and would have had some leverage to prevent it. A direct result of Mr Obama’s insouciance was the emergence of Islamic State in 2014 as an organisation able to take and hold Iraqi cities.

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