In Nobel Speech, Obama Argues Policies Conform to 'Just War' Theory

In his Nobel Prize speech, Obama argues his policies conform to the theory attributed to St. Augustine.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Who would have guessed that President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech today would offer a defense of his war policy based on the philosophy of St. Augustine?

In his speech today in Oslo, Obama invoked "just war" theory early on, then subtly made the case that his war policies conform to its central tenets.

Augustine, a prolific fourth-century philosopher, is frequently cited as the father of just war theory, although the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says its roots are a bit more convoluted. "[J]ust war theory is a synthesis of classical Greco-Roman, as well as Christian, values," according to the encyclopedia. "If we have to 'name names,' the founders of just war theory are probably the triad of Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine."

Obama gave the thumbnail version of just war theory a few paragraphs into his speech:

Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

For most of history, this concept of just war was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations—total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.

The president went on to argue that Afghanistan meets the first criteria of just war, self-defense, while not mentioning the current war in Iraq:

The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait—a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.

Though Obama didn't discuss whether the Afghanistan war meets just war theory's call for sparing civilians, he argued that his antiterrorism policies meet the theory's standard for proportional force and for the general conduct of war:

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantánamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

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