The Obama speech was about what I expected: on the one hand/on the other hand, I reject false choices, needle-threading "pragmatism." I have to say I find this rhetorical approach increasingly wearying. There always seems to be the implication, hidden between the lines, that only the author of the speech truly understands how complicated the world is. During the race speech, that was appropriate and affecting: there are few people who’ve experienced race in as much of its full complexity as Barack Obama. But I don’t think the same thing holds for war and peace.

The main thrust of the speech was that in a fallen, difficult world, sometimes war is necessary to secure peace. If we want peace, we have to be hard-headed and clear-eyed. Since Obama was positioning himself as a practical advocate of peace, I was curious to hear what David Cortright thought about it.

Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame has been advocating peace since he was in the Army in Vietnam and organized his comrades against the war. He went on to write "Soldiers in Revolt" about that experience and then was a lead organizer in the nuclear freeze movement. In the 1990s he and his colleague George Lopez wrote often and influentially about non-violent alternatives to war and their support for sanctions in Iraq earned them withering criticism from Nation reader who saw the sanctions as a moral abomination. (I wrote about the sanctions here)

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Cortright helped lead Win Without War, conceived of as a"mainstream" alternative to ANSWER and other anti-war groups.

So Cortright’s credentials as a pragmatic advocate of peace (whatever, in the final analysis, that means) are pretty impeccable: no starry-eyed, weak-kneed, incorrigible idealist, he! I emailed to ask him for his reaction, and he wrote back right away. "I found the Nobel speech disappointing." He continued: "To use the Nobel dais to justify the use of military force is unseemly. The president’s characterization of the historic role of US military power was distorted, and his interpretation of just war theory was incomplete."

His full response follows:


The president asserted that US military policy has helped to "underwrite global security." More accurate would be an admission that many of our adventures have created global insecurity. Vietnam, the wars in Central America in the 1980s, the invasion of Iraq, countless interventions by the CIA–these and other actions have sown suffering and insecurity. The US has supported democracy in some settings but very often we have subverted democracy and overthrown legitimately elected democratic regimes, in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), etc.


The president invoked just war principles but showed a shallow understanding of the criteria. The most important principle of just war theory is a presumption against the use of force, a belief that war is almost always unjust and can be justified only under the most dire circumstances and only if strict ethical criteria are satisfied. He mentioned a few of the criteria, without probing them in depth, but did mention the standard of ‘probability of success.’ Under that criterion, the war in Afghanistan cannot be judged just, since there is very little probability that the war can be pursued to achieve military victory, however that is defined.

The president’s assertions about Afghanistan did not acknowledge the fact that war is an inappropriate means of combating terrorism. The Rand Corporation study of 2008 on how terrorist groups end found that military force was responsible for ending terrorist groups in only 7 per cent of the cases. Political bargaining (43 per cent) and effective law enforcement (40 per cent) were the primary factors accounting for the end of terrorist groups. The military’s own counterinsurgency doctrine calls for a campaign that is 80 per cent nonmilitary. The US effort in Afghanistan is the reverse, more than 80 per cent military.

Peace demands responsibility and sacrifice, yes, but it is built primarily through nonmilitary means. The president mentioned some of these, but he failed to mention that US foreign policy systematically undervalues these approaches. In Afghanistan the US is spending far more on military approaches than on development and humanitarian assistance.