Rearranging the Letters in Obama’s “Just War” Theory

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Thursday, US President Barack Obama attempted to defend his escalation of the US war in Afghanistan, making use of “just war theory.”

The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

The war in Afghanistan fits this definition, Obama implies, because “of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense.” And in fact the war in Afghanistan does fit into “just war theory” if we move one letter from the begining to the middle.

The war was not launched, nor has it been waged, in “self-defense” or as a “last resort.” Far from it. While most people rightly felt that the 9/11 attacks required a forceful response, an invasion of Afghanistan and what’s shaping up as a decade of occupation there were far from the only, or even best, options available. Most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan. Much of the planning and preparation were done elsewhere as well. And even if Afghanistan was a natural focal point for the response due to Osama bin Laden’s presence there, it was an ill-conceived response which doubled down on the policy errors which had led to 9/11 in the first place.

The US could have complied with the Taliban’s request for evidence, upon presentation of which they claimed they would extradite Osama bin Laden to the US for trial (a lower burden than would have been set by, say, Canada, which wouldn’t have extradited him unless it was guaranteed that the death penalty would not be sought). Would the Taliban have kept their word? We’ll never know — then-president George W. Bush chose to sneer at that request and invade rather than fulfill a single, simple, reasonable requirement for achieving his alleged objective.

The US could have utilized special operations forces to specifically target al Qaeda and bin Laden, but chose the conventional warfare/invasion route instead. Bush launched a war of “regime change” and “nation-building” — not “last resorts” but preferred options exercised at the expense of the alleged main objective. The “regime change” element tied down American forces in the lowlands for a good six weeks, giving bin Laden and al Qaeda plenty of time to relocate to Pakistan. The “nation-building” element has kept the US forces tied down in a no-win situation of their own making ever since.

Eight years on, Obama has chosen not only to continue, but to escalate, an optional, non-defensive war which has already resulted in more than 30,000 completely unnecessary civilian deaths and which serves not only no defensive purpose but no discernable purpose at all. Afghanistan is not “a just war.” We need to move the “a.” It’s “just a war.”

In Obama’s version of history, “[w]ar, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”

To an extent, he’s right — but he goes off the rails and off into fairy tale material. Along came government to fix things! How? Through “[a]greements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development.”

One of these things is not like, is in fact incompatible with, the others. Nation[-state]s, strong [government] institutions and [government] “investment” always come at the expense of human rights … and, sooner or later, at the expense of peace.

It may very well be that the war in Afghanistan was initially just a mistake — that the previous administration lacked clear vision, over-estimated or misunderstood the threat, panicked under pressure, dropped the ball. Within months, however, it became quite clear that no legitimate defensive, or even preemptive, mission remained to be accomplished.

For a good 7 1/2 of its eight years, the war in Afghanistan has been merely — and clearly — a function of “agreements among nations, strong institutions and investment in development.” Or, to put it a different way, a way for bureaucrats and rent-seekers to fleece the taxpayers of the US and the NATO countries and transfer as much of their wealth as possible to the bank accounts of war profiteers (euphemistically referred to as “defense contractors”). That conspiracy has thus far succeeded to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, with no end in sight.

Just a war, folks. That’s all it is — a picking of your pocket, and if some carnage is required to distract your attention, so be it. There is no “higher purpose” … this is government’s main purpose and primary activity, your tax dollars at their intended work.

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