The Catholic Thing
President Obama, War, and Catholic Thought Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Wednesday, 06 January 2010

President Obama has banished the phrase “war on terror” from the lexicon of the American national security bureaucracy. Some welcomed this change because terror is a means used by an enemy, not the enemy itself. The phrase gave the impression (accurately) that we were strategically confused. But others welcomed the change as a move away from war on any grounds.

The latter were disappointed by President Obama’s decision to increase American troops in Afghanistan, despite his 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal. In his December 1 speech at West Point, he said the Afghanistan war is critical to our security, but our military effort there must be completed soon and “at a reasonable cost,” a thoroughly mixed message.

The decision opened the president to considerable criticism for a confused approach. He took none of the contending views about Afghanistan – whether success is possible or impossible, whether failure would be catastrophic or inconsequential – to its logical conclusion. Instead, he aimed mainly at keeping both the domestic political right and left quiet, giving the right more troops and the left a short deadline, and giving himself until the middle of 2011 – over a year before his next election – to figure out what to do next. He seemed to say that the war is justified, but not too much of it.

Obama attempted to resolve some of the confusion in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo. He did something his audience did not expect, prompting many of his European admirers to disown him. He offered a robust defense of the use of force in some cases, implicitly following Catholic just war theory:

And over time. . .the concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

The twentieth-century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr took up and advanced just war theory within “Christian realism,” his approach to international relations. Several observers have noted the influence of Niebuhr on Obama. Over the course of his life, Niebuhr moved from pacifism to recognizing the need to use force in some circumstances. His thinking on these matters was compatible with, and derived from, Catholic teaching.

Obama continued, “Evil does exist in the world. . . . Peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting. . . . Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil.“ Finally, he referred to “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls,” a notable instance of an American president evangelizing a Europe that simply does not talk about God in public. It would be hard to find more “Catholic” remarks in any president’s speeches.

But then, the confusion re-emerged. The administration became embroiled in the attempted Christmas bombing of an airliner arriving in Detroit by an Islamist terrorist. Critics called on the administration to acknowledge that we are at war against such terrorists, and after much deliberation with his advisors, the president did exactly that. Then followed the White House counterterrorism advisor’s comment that treating the attacker as an American criminal with legal rights, rather than a combatant, was the right thing to do – on the bizarre grounds that a plea bargain offer would persuade him to inform on his al Qaeda colleagues.

Why such confusion? To begin with, as the president has rightly said, these are complex and difficult questions, and no administration or regime anywhere in history has responded perfectly to such moral and practical dilemmas.

But there is another factor, and the Oslo speech gives us a glimpse of it. Obama asserted, “we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.” Obama is right to call for us to work for a more peaceful and just world. The notion that we can perfect our condition by our own lights, however, aware of a divine spark but working entirely through our own reason, is just another instance of the catastrophic divorce of faith and reason often invoked by Benedict XVI.

President John Kennedy, seeking to assure Americans that his Catholicism was compatible with the Protestant majority’s tenets and the American tradition of progress through self-reliance, said, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” Obama rephrased the idea in Oslo: “we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

Would a president guided by a stronger Catholic Christian, or other, faith find clearer answers to these questions of war? Not likely. But such a leader would at least understand that we cannot, through reason alone, defend ourselves and deal justly with our enemies, and we cannot through reason alone define, much less achieve, the many good outcomes that Obama seeks without producing the evils he wants to avoid. Whatever justice we achieve in dealing with war, whatever progress we see in any domain, come from our reason and labor, guided by grace. Therein lies the only path through the confusion.

Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
A false argument
written by William H. Phelan, January 07, 2010
Mr. Wood: Why don't you discuss the fact that Israel, in direct opposition to the strong requests of the U.S. Gov't for decades, continues its apartheid treatment of Palestinians? Why don't you discuss how Israel is going ahead with building in East Jerusalem against the wishes of the Obama Gov't? If this condition were reversed and Palestine was a state (again!), much of Islamic "terror" would evaporate. Your article wandered.
A Man for no Seasons?
written by Willie, January 07, 2010
Obama is a secularist with a gift for euphemistic sounding rhetoric. A good example is how he plans to reduce the number of abortions. It seems to me that he can use morality for his own agenda. I would be wary of what this icon of the far left says and pay more attention to what he does.
Talk about confusing!
written by Gary Valcour, January 07, 2010
This must rank as the most confused and confusing article I've read on this excellent site. It seems to me that Mr. Wood is simply trying to paint some clothes on the naked emperor. Mr. Obama is not confused at all. He simply offers whatever message his political advisors tell him he needs to use to keep the most voters happy. Like most mugwumps he ends up offending each side. Rather, I think, like Mr. Wood's essay.
Just war?
written by Joseph, January 07, 2010
Augustine and Aquinas both gave ample excuses for "just war," which case could be made for stopping Hitler, Hirohito and Khruschev. But a bunch of opium-smoking goat herders in Afghanistan armed with old rifles? A tough sell.

I think there's an old Yiddish saying: "A bad peace is better than a good war."

America has more blood on its hands in this century than any other nation. Obama is little more than yet another tool of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.
The real disconnect
written by Chris, January 07, 2010
Excellent article, but I must agree with other comments that Obama merely reads the speeches as written because that's what he is good at. His actions show him to be, at best, completely amoral. He simply doesn't connect what he is saying with the realities of the world. It is almost childlike. And to Mr. Phelan, I'm sorry, but the thought that Islamic terrorists give a happy hoot about the Palestinians is simply misguided. Their plight is used only when convenient and then forgotten.
written by Joseph Wood, January 07, 2010
Don't let my column change your good view of TCT! If I understand you, you think I give Obama too much credit for his real cynical motives or means. The confusion I describe and the cynicism you describe are completely compatible, and they are often wrapped together in a package of "good" intentions where good is defined entirely by the autonomous self of the person who says they're good (in opposition to faith/reason). Obama may be the textbook example. Hope this helps; thanks for reading it.
The real world
written by William H. Phelan, January 08, 2010
Sorry, Chris, but the facts speak for themselves. A few short months ago, Pres. Obama had P.M. Netanyahu to the White House for a two hour meeting with no photo ops. The subject was the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the continued building in East Jerusalem. Obama insisted it end. Google up Tikkun and The Forward and see what the sentiments concerning Obama are in some quarters. Rahm Emanuel served in the Israeli Army and he knows the Likud gov't. must be restrained.
There is only one way out
written by Chuck, January 08, 2010
Terror works when the terrorized is scared enough to start convincing themselves that the terrorist has some moral grounds to terrorize. That, in the old world, was called "saving face". The terrorized are not admitting to be cowards and terrorist--having achieved his first goal of intimidation--'graciously' admits that the terrorized 'has seen the light'. Resolution and asymmetrical retaliation (i.e. NO BUSINESS AT ALL) are the only solutions. But that requires guts.
No apatheid
written by Chuck, January 08, 2010
There are Palestinians who live and work inside Israel, have full Israeli citizenship and full access to political activities such as being part of the Knesset (Parliament). Real apartheid is what most Muslim countries practice with Christians and other non-Muslims. In some of those countries forced prostitution and slavery are still as legal as they were in the 7th century. Wake up. If you want to surrender to the Arabs you can take a plane and move there. Good luck!

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