How well does our embattled president grasp just war theory?

President Obama gave a pretty good speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe it was a little too eloquent. I don’t much like soaring rhetoric; I know there are times to soar, but Obama does it, or tries to do it, every time. Plain speech is also useful, and there was some plain speech in Norway—particularly the reiterated insistence, directed, I think, to our European friends, that sometimes making war is the only way to a just peace. He said this, not once but three or four times, “because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause.” He spoke also about the horrors of war, and said all the right things, but his emphasis was on war’s occasional necessity—and these occasions are probably the most critical ones that political leaders face.

Perhaps that is what he had to say, having just decided to expand the war in Afghanistan and then coming to Norway to receive a peace prize. We might think that war’s necessity is his excuse. But it seems to me that his message was important, especially so in Europe, where public opinion seems to have turned against the use of force, not just in Afghanistan but anywhere, “no matter the cause.” But there was no ambivalence about the use of force by Rwanda’s Hutu Power militants, or by Serbian nationalists in Bosnia and Kosovo, or by Indonesian militias in East Timor, or by the Sudanese government in Darfur; nor is there any ambivalence among Islamic radicals in many parts of the world today. Obama’s strongest argument was that ambivalence in the West is not a useful response to all this.

But he also argued very clearly that force must be used, when it is used, with restraint. This was Obama’s second argument, and he made it by invoking just war theory. Other presidents have done that, but this one seemed to have a better grasp of the theory than any of his predecessors did. I can’t judge the strength of his commitment “to bind ourselves to certain rules of conduct … not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.” That last phrase can be a moralizing refrain, without much substance. But Obama also recognized that we have “a moral and strategic interest” in fighting justly—above all, in minimizing the risks that we impose on civilians. Morality by itself is, of course, a good reason for fighting in certain ways and not in others, but strategy provides a critical and perhaps a necessary reinforcement. And the truth is that we will never win the hearts and minds of Afghans or Pakistanis if we are wantonly or carelessly destroying their bodies. Restraint is a requirement of success in the kind of wars that we fight nowadays.

The president’s third argument dealt with what is probably the most difficult and the most criticized aspect of his foreign policy—his effort to combine political and economic pressure on repressive or dangerous regimes, like those of Iran, say, or Burma, with an openhanded diplomatic engagement. Critics have suggested that the policy is too openhanded and not politically tough enough; it doesn’t give sufficient encouragement to political dissidents and opposition movements around the world; it forfeits America’s role as the global defender of liberal and democratic values. I think that Obama probably got the balance better in Norway than he has done before. He insisted that “sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure…”. He named the dissidents and oppositionists that “free people and free nations” must support. And he defended diplomatic engagement by a flanking maneuver to the right, invoking the examples of Nixon and Reagan.

It all makes sense to me, but the truth is that “there is no simple formula here,” and it probably doesn’t help to try to define the balance. Sometimes we need well-publicized and “noisy” sanctions and very quiet diplomacy; sometimes spectacular summits and quiet threats bring better results. And the dissidents and oppositionists may best be served by covert support, which can’t be discussed in Nobel speeches. But he didn’t do badly, our embattled president, accepting this embarrassing honor; we should attend to his arguments.   

Michael Walzer is a contributing editor of The New Republic. This piece also appears on the website for Dissent Magazine.

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