Even More Thoughts on Obama’s Oslo Speech

15 December 2009, 2100 EST

Obama has received a lot of credit and praise for his articulation of Just War doctrine in his Oslo speech. And, while I, like Charli, found a lot to like about the speech, I take exception to the way in which he set up the issue of Just War:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

First, let me say that I subscribe to the Just War doctrine. But all proponents of Just War need to be aware of the ambiguities, subjectivity, and moral consequences found within the contradictions of a position that claims a moral abhorrence to war and yet accepts its necessity at times. No war has lived up to the ideal type of Just War. And, the challenges of Just War doctrine will only become more complex with the confluence of such factors as technological innovation, which significantly reduces the domestic political costs of going to war; the emergence of new types of threats; emerging permissive norms of intervention; and so forth.

My broader concern, however, is with the caricature of pacifism and non-violence set up by Obama and the casualness with which he — and most Just War theorists — dismiss them. Obama rightly noted that neither King nor Gandhi were passive or naïve, and yet in the very next paragraph of his speech he dismisses their views precisely as passive and naïve when he states that as president, he has to “face the world as it is” – and “make no mistake” – “evil does exist.” And, then for good measure, he adds the standard canard that “a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”

It is absurd to imply that neither King nor Gandhi recognized the existence of evil – King endorsed the judicious use of police force to enforce laws precisely because he saw and understood the nature of evil (he rejected Tolstoy’s variant of pacifism on these grounds). Many pacifists accept the use of non-lethal force. But, King and Gandhi nonetheless rejected war on both moral and instrumental grounds – killing was morally wrong and violent means could never produce a just result. And, both King and Gandhi rejected passivism that they argued could lead to submission or slavery. Indeed, both suggested that those who failed to resist could be viewed as morally culpable as perpetrators of violence. They both advocated an overriding commitment to making and understanding peace and to active resistance.

Obama is not alone in his casual dismissal of non-violence. We all tend to reject it. Very few courses in IR theory, security studies, or war even address the topic of non-violence. Duane Cady points out that Walzer only gives the issue of non-violence a brief afterthought in an appendix before rejecting it as naïve. (How many of you have read Cady?)

This is surprising given that we now have some stunning empirical examples of effective non-violent civil resistance. This fall marked the 20th anniversary of non-violent popular protests that swept through East and Central Europe and accomplished what no one anticipated. Nine years ago this month, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from office through the power of massive civil protest. And, only a few years after that, he died alone in a jail cell in the Hague.

Just War theory says that use of force should be the last option and only considered when other alternatives are determined to be impractical or ineffective. My concern is that when we so casually dismiss non-violent resistance, when we fail to research and study non-violent civil protests, when we simply assume non-violent resistance is a naïve concept, it’s hard to believe that war and the use of force really are used as the last option……