Nine days after announcing that he wanted more war in Afghanistan to end the war there, the U.S. president – without a presidential portfolio of accomplishment – accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
President Obama delivers remarks during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10. (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
As if he were channeling the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, President Obama spoke more about the justification for war than the making of peace based on the belief that military force is the primary path to address injustice in an imperfect world.
A quick word count found that Obama used the word "war" 39 times, compared to the word "peace" 19 times. He referred to "just war" four times and "just peace" three times.
Obama quoted Martin Luther King several times. While he cited Mahatma Gandhi and King as moral examples, he distanced himself from them. As a head of state, the president justified the use of military force – a classic Christian realist position that often dismisses as unrealistic the way of Gandhi and King.
"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."
The president devoted a significant amount of his speech to making the case for a just war. He claimed that American use of force was generally just.
"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," asserted Obama.
Such nationalistic pride is a characteristic of U.S. presidents. They always claim that the way they wage war is different from the enemy: We have standards. They do not.
Yet less than two weeks ago, Obama pledged to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan without passing the just war rule of a reasonable chance of success. One is hard pressed to see how America's long war will be a just one.
Toward the close of his Oslo speech, Obama said, "The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey."
The pure love for which we strive is likely not possible in our fallen world, the president seemed to say. Nonetheless, it is our moral goal.
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." As much as I would like to applaud the president, I favor a moral critique that will hopefully advance the common good.
Just war rules are a valuable tool for moral discernment in a pluralistic society, yet people of faith must use them with an understanding of a threefold danger.
First, presidents misuse too readily the language of a just war to legitimatize their ambitious wars.
Second, presidents offer too quickly a false choice between doing nothing and letting evil flourish. A better way is just peacemaking, which addresses root causes for conflict, seeks to hear the concerns of adversaries and takes proactive initiatives to change the social dynamics of strife.
Third, our culture has enough pro-war forces without faith leaders beating the war drums. Our cultural sense of divine favor and national uniqueness is a trigger for national self-righteousness. Corporate lobbyists, policy-makers, pundits, aspiring politicians, theocrats, ideologues and fear-mongers are all too ready for war.
Faith leaders ought to be one of the counterbalances to war. After all, they are grounded in a transcendent reality and guided by a moral awareness of the limits to force in the pursuit of justice.
The American applause for Obama's speech quickens the march to an expanded war in Afghanistan – regrettably.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.