Just War Theory … Maybe

Posted: November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I’ve just completed Stephen Carter’s new book, The Violence of Peace. Of course, the Yale prof is an intellectual of the first rank. But he is also rare. He balances his rock steady scholarship with a kind of reasonableness that is hard to dispute. I like him. I especially like the way he rattles my too easily acquired assumptions.

At the core of this project is a simple question: President Obama has presented a Just War Theory rationale for his policies and actions. So how do his actual choices and decisions stand up against his stated philosophy?

Answer: He does so partially, and in many cases not at all. And that is the case with most of his predecessors in the White House, certainly his most recent one.

Carter’s starting point is to describe the difference between presidential candidate Obama, running as a peace candidate, and President Obama, who has become a war president. There is a difference between the two, one frequently found in many other candidates-become-presidents. The abstract notions of governing before taking office are soon chastened with real world decisions.

In President Obama’s case, the Just War Theory is interpreted as conducting a war in self defense, and that self-defense may take the form of preemptive strikes upon enemies that are preparing to do harm. This is true of his predecessor. Though Obama did not begin armed action in either Iraq or Afghanistan, he has surpassed President Bush in his willingness to conduct preemptive drone attacks and assassinations on the home soil of enemies when not engaged in explicit battle, i.e., in their homes, in funeral processions.

This principle also applies to extreme interrogation, i.e., torture, and off shore rendition of “non-combatants” in the interest of avoiding harm inflicted by the enemy. All of this is explained according to same principle of self-defense in a preemptive mode. Though executing the presidential order banning torture (13491) actual practice has changed only in minor ways.

In Jus ad bellum – one discerns what realities justify commencement of armed action. According to public statements and action of President Obama this means that we may fight preventive wars that are not forced upon us, target individuals for assassination in countries with whom we are not formally at war, capture enemies on the battlefield and imprison them indefinitely beyond the reach of the American judicial system, and turn these captives over to other countries that will use torture.

None of these actions can stand close scrutiny with Just War Theory. Carter does not, however, criticize President Obama for taking the actions of a war president. He criticizes him for not squaring with his own stated philosophy.  When Obama runs in 2012 it will necessarily be as a war president.

Just War tradition asks first when it is appropriate to fight a war(Is it an action of last resort, etc.). It secondly asks how to conduct it (Is proportional force used, etc.). This is Jus in bello, Justice in war. To say it succinctly, the choices of President Obama have not been equivalent, but rather designed to win. Again, Carter does not criticize the President on moral basis, only in his failure to conform to Just War standards. Those are, after all, his own identified standards. There has not been total discrimination between militants and civilians. Killing the enemy is the highest objective.

One of the most incisive observations of Carter’s book is not tied to this sitting President, but rather to all Presidents – about which he knows much. And it is simple. Americans have always, and still do, hold a double standard in their perception of who are the good guys and the bad guys. Americans are viewed, in general, as always on the side of right. Therefore it is always appropriate to conduct whatever war of our choice because it is morally defensible in the end. The correlation to that is it is not right for our enemies to attack us on our own soil. Why? Well, because we are right! We may kill them in such ways – and torture them because, well, we are on the side of justice. But when enemies wish to do that to us they are evil and it is wrong, an outrage. Why? Because we are right.

This is an important book and should not be missed.

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