President Obama, War, and Catholic Thought

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 an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.