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Obama and War

John Peeler: Obama has done, in the Libyan case, just what he said he would: with UN Security Council and Arab League authorization, he has put together a coalition to take limited military measures to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
obama libya speech

Stephen L. Carter, The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama (New York: Beast Books, 2011).

Having run for President as a candidate bitterly critical of the Bush administration’s Iraq War and the so-called “War on Terror”, Barack Obama as President has largely affirmed those policies, as well as escalating our war in Afghanistan. Many of his most fervent supporters are deeply disappointed. The jury that awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 is no doubt disappointed as well. On the other hand, conservatives who have based their political strategy on opposing him at every turn must be nonplussed.

Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, has given us a book that steps back from these polarized positions to analyze Obama’s stance on war and peace in terms of the philosophy of Just War that he chose as the central theme of his Nobel Address (printed in full as an appendix of the book). Carefully reasoned and elegantly written (190 pages with 40 pages of notes), this is a book for educated non-specialists. It will not be part of anyone’s political campaign.

The book has four parts. The first, “Eliminating Enemies” analyzes Obama’s Nobel speech in terms of what he considers a just cause for war. The second looks at how Obama articulates the means by which war may justly be fought. The third looks at Obama’s rhetoric about intervening in humanitarian crises, making an eloquent case for such interventions while expressing skepticism that Obama will actually do what he says he will do. And the fourth part critiques the way Americans learn about and talk about war.

The first part begins by calling attention to the common ground between Obama and George W. Bush on the issue of protecting the American people by war if necessary. Carter quotes both presidents to the effect that there is evil in the world, and we must name it and oppose it. Traditionally, he notes, this is “the very definition of the cause worth fighting for” (p. 12). In his Nobel Address, Obama uses the Just War tradition to sketch out the circumstances when, as Head of State, he would find war to be a just response: “…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” (p. 12).

Here Carter suggests that though both Bush and Obama defend the Afghanistan War as legitimate self-defense, it more properly should be seen as a war of choice, “a decision America’s leaders made about how best to prevent al-Qaeda from launching future attacks” (p. 18). And he further maintains that, contrary to Obama, both the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War were justified by the same perceived need to prevent future attacks.

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Carter expands at some length on the Just War tradition as first formulated by Catholic scholars such as Saints Augustine and Aquinas, and later secularized. Obama, he notes, selects those aspects of the philosophical tradition that support his position. Nevertheless, “President Obama’s insistence that there are evils in the world that must be combated with force rather than reason is not in any sense a violation of the just war tradition” (p. 29). Still, Carter notes, Obama’s broad interpretation of self-defense as a justification for war includes practices such as preventive war, covert action, drone assassinations, black site imprisonment, and torture, which are problematic under just war theory.

The second part addresses the question of how a war is to be fought under just war philosophy. A key problem is that Americans tend to assume that we are permitted tactics against our enemies that they may not legitimately use against us, whereas the just war tradition affirms equivalent standards on both sides. Obama will have none of this. He thereby departs decisively from the just war tradition, but Carter recognizes that no other position is politically acceptable.

What about cases where other governments pose no threat to us, but are grievously oppressing their own people? This is the subject of the third part. Carter points out that the just war tradition places special emphasis on forceful intervention to protect the innocent, even when—especially when—our country has no vital interests involved. Obama’s rhetoric suggests a resolve to take action in such situations, but only if doing so is not too costly. Carter, writing before the current regional crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly before the uprising in Libya and the decision to intervene there, is skeptical that Obama will be any different than previous presidents in refusing to get involved in such conflicts.

But in fact Obama has done, in the Libyan case, just what he said he would: with UN Security Council and Arab League authorization, he has put together a coalition to take limited military measures to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. He has avoided identifying the international intervention with the removal of Qaddafi or the victory of the opposition, even though it is clear that he wants both of those things to happen. Carter is presumably a happy man today, in this respect, for he affirms that the US has unique obligations, under the just war tradition, to be the world’s policeman, because no other country can do it.

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Finally, this is Carter’s plea: in a world where we cannot evade the responsibility of making war, that we do so thoughtfully, and justly. He fits no convenient political cubbyhole.

John Peeler

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