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Bob Woodward, the President, and Just War

There was considerable just war argument before, during, and after the Iraq War.  Some of it was not terribly insightful, but, in the main, the debate demonstrated that the principles of the classic just war tradition, if not the tradition’s intellectual architecture, were still in place in American public life. The post-major-combat just war debate over Iraq was particularly important, as it surfaced an idea that I had been promoting, without much success, since 1987: that, in addition to the classic theory’s ius ad bellum (war-decision law) and ius in bello (war-conduct law), there was a ius ad pacem, or what others called a ius post bellum, implicit in the just war tradition—that is, a morally justified use of force had to be aimed at creating the conditions for the possibility of a peace composed of security, order, justice, and freedom, the classic ends of politics.

There has been relatively little just war debate about the war underway in Afghanistan, but there ought to be in light of Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars” (Simon and Schuster).

In his 2009 Nobel Prize address, the President spoke about the just war tradition as the moral framework in which statesmen had to ponder their responsibilities in the face of either conventional armed threat or terrorism. But Woodward’s description of an administration that treats treat the life-and-death decisions of war-and-peace as an annoying distraction from its domestic agenda, that bases decisions on troop deployments on domestic political calculation rather than military necessity, and that seems to have lost sight of the moral imperative to use armed force in such a way that victory and peace—not withdrawal according to a domestic political time-table—become possible suggests that neither the President nor his advisors are very well versed in the tradition the President lifted up in Oslo last December.

It’s not as if political calculation never played a part in any previous administration’s thinking about war and peace: political calculation is what politicians do, and a healthy sense of what the public will support is essential to democratic leadership, especially in a long-haul war like Afghanistan. But what is so disheartening about the account of administration deliberations in Woodward’s book is that it’s all politics, all the time. Moreover, on Woodward’s account, the President and his team, from the moment they took office, were thinking about an exit strategy rather than about victory: and this, despite the fact that, during the 2008 campaign, the President, long critical of the Iraq War, had seemed to juxtapose it to Afghanistan, the good war.

No war is good, in an important sense. But some wars are necessary, and if the war is necessary, then a leader should tell his people that, explain that it might take a long time to resolve, think about military strategy in terms of the morally-acceptable means necessary to achieve victory—and then perhaps stay and enforce the peace. Significant American forces remained in Europe for almost a half-century after World War II, and in Korea for decades after the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. It’s simply not true that the American people have no staying-power. But they are unlikely to support an extended effort in Afghanistan, or anywhere else, if the first question being posed by their political leadership is, How do we get this over with and get out in the least politically damaging way?

That the President and his team seem not to be thinking in just war terms—that their intention, which is one of the core principles of classic just war analysis—seems flawed does not mean that American and allied troops in Afghanistan are participating in an unjust war. A very powerful just war case can be made for bringing a measure of order to Afghanistan, draining the terrorist swamps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and trying to build a new Afghanistan whose people can benefit from its ample mineral resources can be made. The President and his people aren’t making it. In one of the administration’s favorite images, a re-boot is morally imperative.

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George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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