Obama, Afghanistan, and the 'just war'

There are times when war is justified, argued the president's favorite philosopher. And so, despite Obama's anti-Iraq War campaign and his recent Peace Prize, he's got the ghost of Reinhold Niebuhr on his shoulder.
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The Siege of Antioch, from a medieval miniature painting, during the First Crusade.

There are times when war is justified, argued the president's favorite philosopher. And so, despite Obama's anti-Iraq War campaign and his recent Peace Prize, he's got the ghost of Reinhold Niebuhr on his shoulder.

Lingering somewhere in the shadows at Oslo'ꀙs Nobel Prize ceremony may well have been the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th-century American theologian whom President Obama has described as his favorite philosopher.

As Obama navigated the choppy sea between hawks at home and doves in Norway, devotees of Niebuhr'ꀙs 'ꀜChristian Realism'ꀝ heard much that resonated. 'ꀜThere will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,'ꀝ said the president.

Such was the argument Niebuhr made in the 1930s when he broke with the pacifist consensus of religious leaders prior to World War II. Niebuhr argued, 'ꀜThere are situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences far worse than war.'ꀝ

But Niebuhr also always qualified his endorsement of America. He viewed America as perennially tempted to claim too much virtue for its cause and likely to be blinded by its own sense of righteousness. His positions were nuanced. 'ꀜGoodness,'ꀝ wrote Niebuhr, when 'ꀜarmed with power is corrupted; and pure love without power is destroyed.'ꀝ It'ꀙs not a simple world and there are no easy answers.

Obama may not only find an ally from the past in Niebuhr, but one for the future, this time in Canada. There political philosopher Michael Ignatieff heads Canada'ꀙs Liberal party and is a favorite to succeed the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. In several books, including The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror, Ignatieff offers a complex approach to global issues that has much in common with Obama'ꀙs.

Obama also drew upon the venerable moral tradition and doctrine of just war. Given fullest articulation by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, 'ꀜjust war'ꀝ theory is one of the three approaches to armed conflict taken by Christians over the millennia. During the period of the early church, the first four centuries of the Common Era, Christians were by and large pacifists. Without political power and sometimes under attack by Roman authorities, Christians followed the example of Jesus who was willing to die for his faith but not to kill for it. Pacifism has continued among Christians, particularly in the so-called peace church tradition of groups such as Mennonites, Amish, and The Brethren.

At an opposite pole is a second position, the crusade. Medieval popes sponsored The Crusades, armed attempts to drive Muslims from 'ꀜthe Holy Land.'ꀝ Arguably, it was this tradition that was invoked by President George W. Bush whose initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was described by the word 'ꀜcrusade.'ꀝ Though Niebuhr died in 1971, it seems likely that he would have challenged Bush'ꀙs blanket claims of American righteousness and pointed out the dangers of asserting that God is on our side.

The third, and predominant, Christian position has been the doctrine of just war. While critics regard it as so much window dressing, others see it as a way to subject the inherent unholiness of war to some moral criteria and checks. Aquinas proposed four criteria a war had to meet in order to be considered morally defensible or just.

First, such a war must be declared and waged by a legitimately constituted authority. Critics of recent American wars have pointed to this, maintaining that many of America'ꀙs wars have not been declared by an act of Congress as the Constitution requires.

Second, said Aquinas, a just war must have a just cause. Invading another nation to acquire its land or resources did not qualify. This argument was made in support of the first Gulf War in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

A third criteria for a war to be considered just has to do with intention or intended outcome, which must be that of establishing good or rectifying evil. When leaders today debate the question of 'ꀜmission,'ꀝ i.e. what'ꀙs the goal or purpose, the intention criteria is brought into play.

Finally, according to Aquinas, a just war must be waged by just means. This meant that noncombatants were not to be targeted, disproportionate means were not to be used, and prisoners were not to be tortured. Again, the question of just means has been frequently in play in recent years as civilian causalities and torture have been debated.

In Oslo Obama located himself and his newly announced policy in Afghanistan in the just-war tradition saying, 'ꀜMake no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler'ꀙs armies. Negotiations alone cannot convince Al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.'ꀝ

It seems likely that Niebuhr would have nodded, albeit sadly, in agreement.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.