Damning pacifism with faint praise in Oslo

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It is certainly an apt expression of the muddle of our times that President Obama should step up to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace the week after announcing a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan and as he continues his caretaking of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

Obama seemed painfully aware of the irony and offered a thoughtful rumination on the violent signs of our times and the appropriate use of force in the face of the evil at work in the world. It was an unusual speech in Oslo that seemed to promote American exceptionalism and its use-of-force tradition with no doubt an eye to his homeland audience even as it attempted to authenticate a U.S. claim to the tradition of peacemaking.

I have been waiting to see a response from Pax Christi USA and I certainly don’t feel qualified to offer a true pacifist’s rebuttal. It did seem to me, however, that even as Obama acknowledged the legitimacy of pacifism’s role in practical global policymaking—noting for instance that he did not consider the tradition naïve or preposterously idealistic in a world where dead-end players like al Qaeda persist in their pointless cruelty—he did rely upon some old-school criticisms of pacifism to justify the application of force. His speech devoted a disproportionate amount of time to a defense the U.S.’s ongoing military campaigns and thereby the ethically dubious tactics embodied by our drone war approach to counter-insurgency and the existence of detention facilities at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The president talked about true evil in the world and asked what pacifism could have achieved in the face of the Nazi reign of terror. These notions suggest that pacifism is disconnected from the hard realities of the world when the truth is quite the opposite. Pacifists were so attuned to the signs of their times that they were among the first to suggest the vicious potential of the Nazi party, but they were ignored by their fellow citizens. It seems to me that the strength of the pacifist approach is this acute attention to global and regional economic and political disequilibrium and unfair to talk about how pacifist's would halt a war-machine like Nazi Germany when the essence of the pacifist's political "realism" is to intervene long before such political ogres come to power.

The neo-cons justified the "preemptive war" in Iraq as a means of stopping Hussein before he could commit global terror (based on erroneous or deliberately misinterpreted analysis), noting his many human rights violations over the years. But pacifists and social activists had been pointing out for decades the many violations of human dignity of the Hussein regime even as the “realists” in Washington were cutting deals with him and propping up his regime against Iran. The list of messes that pacifists could have helped this nation avoid is a long one. We did not (and do not) have the ears to hear their wise counsel.

Obama acknowledged that reality, suggesting that as humankind matures it will properly move toward complete pacifism, but that in our unfortunate times the use of force can still claim moral legitimacy. Perhaps so, but it would be a great step forward for the U.S. to more shamefully accept this unhappy conclusion when we too often seem to wallow in it. It could not hurt for this nation to admit that it has used force too flippantly in the past with disregard to the moral and human consequences.

It is always a moral failure, but it is also often a political and strategic blunder as well to succumb to the use of force. The imperial blowback which delivered us al Qaeda and the mayhem of 9/11 began with an uncontroversial decision to begin arming the mujahideen by the Carter and Reagan administrations with an eye to weakening the Soviets. History can judge how wise that use of force decision was.

Advancing the use of force in Vietnam was the domino principle that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the loss of the other Southeast Asian nations to communism, one of history’s great self-fulfilling prophecies.

Obama’s speech allows a reappraisal of pacifism and offers a small opening to its place at the strategic table, but even as he allows that opening, Obama feels obliged to point out pacifism’s weaknesses. Fair enough. But likewise our spiritualilty of force decision making should be held to the same evaluation and its many contradictions and failures coldly and fairly appreciated, studied and attended to. I think pacifism's presumed strategic weakness would pale in any honest comparison's to the outcomes, means and ends of many historic U.S. use of force decisions.