We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King] 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 is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.
In the early reaction, Huffington Post columnist Robert Naiman took Obama's speech to task using the Catholic Catechism as a measuring rod. For example, with respect to Catholic provisions regarding the use of arms,
... the use of arms already has produced evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated, and will almost certainly continue to do so. The difference to the world and to Afghanistan between whether the Afghan Taliban have their present power or the power they will have after being "degraded" cannot possibly justify the destruction of American and Afghan lives that is the guaranteed consequence of continuing and escalating the war.
John McConnico, meanwhile, placed a general theological context around the speech, asking readers, "What do you think about such religious discourse from a political leader? Does it help clarify the issues involved?" while Andrew Sullivan, Gary Dorrien, and David Brooks made mention of Obama's reading of Reinhold Niebuhr.
The appropriateness of invoking Just War is a well-worn subject here in the Cafe, with commentary available from practically the beginnings of this site and especially occurring around the subject of the war in Iraq. We encourage you to do a search and see how the conversation has gone before.
Here are some choice bits.
George Clifford in June 2007:
Just War Theory requires that legitimate authority wage war only when a reasonable chance of success exists. Leaders in the U. S. displayed an arrogant “we know best” attitude, confident they could solve any problem. This hubris quickly became a single-minded commitment, especially in the Bush administration, to finish what they perceived as the unfinished business of the first Gulf War. Officials regarded regime change as the only solution to Saddam Hussein’s brutality, his incessant saber rattling, and the regional instability he caused. They desired international advice, authority, and assistance only if supportive of U. S. policies.
Christianity teaches that those who make wrong choices should acknowledge – confess – their mistake. That holds for nations, not just individuals. Jesus’ message has profound social and political aspects. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke God's word of judgment to nations, both to the Jewish nation and to its pagan neighbors.
From an Economist review of Hugo Slim's book Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (Feb. 2008):
[T]here are rarely totally innocent bystanders in wartime. Osama bin Laden deems all the citizens of any democracy that goes to war to be “non-innocent”—and therefore legitimate targets—because their political systems allow them to choose their leaders and thus to choose their wars. Although Mr Slim would not go that far, he agrees that it is a “fallacy” to suggest that all civilians are equally harmless in wartime. But, he argues (not totally convincingly), “it is a necessary fallacy if we are to try to limit the killing in war.”