Ending us-versus-them mentality
Q: Is there such a thing as a 'just war'? In his Nobel speech, was President Obama right to speak in these theological terms about war? He also stated that 'no holy war can ever be a just war.' Do you agree or disagree?
President Obama's approach to winning the Nobel Peace Prize was both realistic and canny. He acknowledged that it was too early for him to deserve such a prize (in one poll, 80% of the American public agreed), while at the same time he paid no heed to the true motivation behind the prize, which was to reward him for not being George W. Bush. That would have been enough to turn a quasi-embarrassment into a graceful acceptance. But Obama went a step farther.
As much of his audience sat on their hands looking grim, he reminded Europe that the wide-spread pacifism that is now so popular, especially among young Europeans, is a self-indulgence bought at the cost of American money, good will, and blood. We have been altruistic so that they can be in denial. Pacifism denies that some things are worth fighting for. Yet at the same time, there must be a counter trend, constantly pushing for the end of militarism.
The President can hold two ideas in his head at the same time, and he is asking us to. In effect, he outlined three principles governing his outlook: holy wars are always unjust, just wars exist, and peace is an ultimate goal. This realistically reflects how entangled we all are in the vexed issue of war and violence. Contradictions abound. America sees itself as the world's peacekeeper but is the largest dealer of arms in the world. We push for peace accords while developing the most advanced methods of mechanized death.
If ending war were a matter of altering human nature, with its built-in tendency toward aggression, peace would be a futile cause. Obama's speech was praised on the right because it justified America's just wars and military vigilance. (Of course, some praised it on the right for bad reasons: xenophobia, ingrained militarism, and a thirst for war.) But in many ways the President is moving beyond the doctrine of a just war. A viable peace movement can succeed if we have a leader who works sincerely for disarmament, decreased militarism, the end of advanced weapons research, a smaller defense budget, and global reconciliation.
The fact that Obama has ended the Bush-era rhetoric about a global war on terror is a promising sign, but there are many others. In speech and deed this President seems to be part of a new peace movement that minimizes us-versus-them thinking, soft pedals patriotism and nationalism, and has no interest into turning America into a country that dominates the world militarily. It's early going yet, but if he continues to grow, we may find ourselves in a new landscape where the ideal isn't a just war but no wars at all.
December 21, 2009; 8:27 PM ET
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