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Better than Expected


Give credit where credit is due: President Obama’s Nobel address marks a modest, welcome, and long overdue reaffirmation of American purpose and power as the essential underpinning of a more just and peaceful world order. For the first time, the president has explicitly addressed grave foreign-policy challenges as commander in chief, rather than as a candidate without any personal or constitutional responsibility for actually choosing between bad and worse.

The acid test will come when the president decides whether or not to impose the burden of his argument as basic policy guidance for his own appointees, many of whom are notably indifferent or even hostile to traditional American interests and ideals. But there’s no chance of that unless the president comes back again and again with forceful public arguments grounded in the two most basic and traditional themes that underlie his Nobel address: American exceptionalism and the just-war tradition.

1. American exceptionalism. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” This acknowledgement marks a welcome and necessary departure from the unbecoming pattern of overblown and out-of-context apologies for mostly imaginary misdeeds that marred President Obama’s first overseas trip and his unfortunate Cairo speech. It would be more just and accurate, of course, if the president had explicitly coupled the strength of American ideals with the strength of American arms, both as a matter of historical fact and of American self-understanding dating from the earliest days of this republic. But it’s an effective rebuttal of his ill-considered dismissal of American exceptionalism while in France earlier this year (where he also managed to leave the impression that all that distinguishes America from any other nation is Barack Obama himself).

2. The just-war tradition. Also for the first time, President Obama has spoken of waging a just and necessary war against the enemies of civilization, rather than simply cleaning up another mess inherited from the previous administration. Like it or not, he’s finally assumed responsibility for resolving the internal contradictions within his own administration between the convictions expressed in his Oslo speech and the prevailing view of ongoing hostilities as “man-caused disasters” and “overseas contingency operations.”

The president cannot resolve this contradiction without plainly grounding the ongoing war against Islamist terrorism in the just-war tradition:

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.

Words matters. And these words are an explicit endorsement of the just-war tradition, which offers a moral framework for relating ends and means in considering whether and how armed force may be permissible or even required in particular circumstances. As the president acknowledges, it’s also the only available moral framework in which pacifism may be an acceptable option for individuals but not for states charged with defending the common good and innocent life against unjust aggression:

A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.

These are the basic premises for a long-overdue public debate over ends and means that only the president can initiate. If the war in Afghanistan is in fact “not only necessary but morally justified,” only the president can make that unmistakably clear as a matter of national policy by making the case over and over again. And if he does rise to that challenge (as he failed to do in his regrettably ambivalent West Point speech last week), he will also need to clarify how that particular end relates to the precise means by which he’s chosen to carry it out.

Consider just one example. President Obama’s Nobel speech was interrupted just once for applause, when he spoke of how “America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war” and then added this shopworn bit of self-congratulation: “That is why I prohibited torture.” Leave aside the “torture” canard for a moment and consider instead the basic rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. These are designed to prevent civilian casualties (which the Taliban has skillfully exploited) but may also unduly risk American lives by delaying or denying critical fire support in desperate situations. Similar concerns apply to drone strikes and civilian casualties in Pakistan. These are just a few of the most pressing moral issues that define how we fight (and who we are) in ways that more purely practical concerns — like overall troop levels — do not. And these are the issues that deserve a much fuller debate if we are to relate ends and means in a morally serious manner.

President Obama could have and should have made a speech based on these two fundamental themes — American exceptionalism and the just-war tradition — well before Oslo. But he deserves congratulations for having done so, provided that he follows up by developing and applying these same themes — and by imposing them on a recalcitrant bureaucracy. If he fails to do so, he runs the risk of being compared to David Trimble, another thin-skinned former law professor whose 1998 Nobel Peace Prize was rightly judged as “a premature prize for an immature laureate.” The stakes could not be higher or more clear.

– John F. Cullinan, a regular NRO contributor, wrote on just-war tradition during the run-up to the Iraq War in late 2002.


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