Peace and War in Oslo

Peace and War in Oslo

Obama’s Nobel speech offered a distorted view of America’s role in the world and a shallow understanding of just war.


President Obama displayed his usual rhetorical brilliance in Oslo and acknowledged important principles of peace and nonviolence. But his speech gave a distorted view of America’s role in the world and reflected a shallow understanding of the concept of just war.

The president asserted that US military power has helped to “underwrite global security.” I almost choked on that line. I thought I heard him say “undermine,” which would have been more accurate. Many of Washington’s misadventures have eroded global security–Vietnam, the wars in Central America, the invasion of Iraq, to name just a few. Millions of people have died and many continue to suffer because of unjust and illegal American military interventions.

The president claimed that the United States “has never fought a war against a democracy.” But he failed to mention that CIA operations have subverted democracy and overthrown legitimately elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973) and other countries. Our closest friends, he said, “are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” Is he referring to our “friends” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan?

The president invoked the concept of just war and identified a few of its ethical criteria–just cause, last resort, proportionality–but he failed to mention the most important principle, the presumption against the use of force. The principles of justice begin with the assumption that war is almost always unjust and can be warranted only under the most dire circumstances, and only if strict ethical criteria are satisfied.

Conspicuously missing was any mention of the ethical standard of “probability of success.” Military power should not be used in a futile cause or in circumstances where disproportionate force may be needed to succeed. The prospects of the United States prevailing in a prolonged counterinsurgency war against the Taliban are highly uncertain. Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires is well earned, derived from a long history of fierce resistance to foreign intervention. Are we so certain of military victory, however that might be defined, that we are justified in unleashing the destruction of war?

The president said that when force is used civilians should be “spared from violence.” True, but how does that square with his administration’s increasing use of remote-controlled drone airstrikes in Pakistan? According to the Congressional testimony of former Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen, from 2006 through early 2009 these strikes killed many more civilians than militants. Other studies of the “drone war” have reported different numbers, but all find that many civilians are being killed in these attacks. These strikes “are deeply aggravating to the population,” said Kilcullen, and have “given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism.”

The president asserted that the cause of preventing terrorist strikes is just. True again, but that does not make war a legitimate or appropriate means of combating terrorism. There are many just causes, but few just wars. A RAND Corporation study released in 2008 shows that terrorist groups are thwarted usually through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force. An examination of 268 terrorist organizations that ended during a period of nearly forty years found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the defeat of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases.

The military’s counterinsurgency doctrine calls for winning hearts and minds, which requires a campaign that is 80 percent nonmilitary. The US effort in Afghanistan is the reverse, more than 80 percent military.

War policies are not only inappropriate but counterproductive, arousing widespread anger at US policies. President Obama lamented the “reflexive suspicion of America” that exists in many countries, but he failed to acknowledge that American war policies often arouse that suspicion. The invasion and occupation of Iraq generated what Francis Fukuyama termed a “frenzy of anti-Americanism” around the world. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the principal factor driving the insurgency and mobilizing support for the Taliban.

The president identified many important principles of peacemaking–multilateral cooperation, defense of human rights, commitment to economic development. To enforce international law he advocated the use of nonmilitary sanctions combined with the incentive of diplomatic engagement. He acknowledged “the moral force of nonviolence” and praised the centrality of the “creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”

Yet this message of hope was overshadowed by Obama’s role as a war president–by his defense of a foreign policy that systematically undervalues nonmilitary approaches and that devotes far more resources to war than to development and diplomacy.

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