Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama

Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama May 24, 2013

A friend of mine recently advised me that only 11 percent of Stanford University undergraduates are now majoring in the Humanities. We both suggested this is a great loss. Of course, we both teach in the humanities, I in American Religion, and she in Medieval Christianity. We are both constantly flummoxed by the emphasis at our schools—a public university in my case and a liberal arts college in hers—on the importance of STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.  Well, yes, indeed, these are important. But what if some of the most important and difficult issues were about theology, religion, ethics, and how to negotiate international politics and cultures?

Enter drones, Reinhold Niebuhr, and President Barack Obama. Yesterday, Obama gave one of his most important speeches of his presidency, and my friend, Justin Tse (yet another scholar in religion), suggested that we comment on this speech. And so I listened to it and read it; you can too, here. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-barack-obama.

The meat of it is a moral and theological defense of the Obama drone regime. What we suggest is that Obama is using a type of “proximate justice” to justify drone warfare—a form of justice perfected by Reinhold Niebuhr. An ethical vision that is at its heart a utilitarian ethic that one is obligated to do the greatest good for the greatest number. This means, at times, that one must sacrifice the few to protect the many. Niebuhr’s “proximate justice” recognizes that there is evil in the world, folks that will kill and dehumanize others in order to get what they want.  Arguing against pacifists, Obama qua Niebuhr contends that the United States has the power to make a difference in the world, and thus has the obligation to deter evil as long as it can achieve more good than ill. This notion is at the very heart of Obama’s speech.

Obama makes the case that drones are effective, that is, they do targeted damage to “enemies” of the United States, limiting the number of civilians death all the while stopping terrorists who want to destroy and kill not only U.S. citizens, but also citizens of other states. The United States then has a duty to use them as effectively and efficiently as possible—an efficiency proven by the results on the ground—the crippling of Al Qaeda and the destruction of their ability to carry out their missions.

Moreover, Obama argues that drone warfare is legally justified, since war has been declared nationally and internationally against Al Qaeda and its allies. The drone warfare, Obama contends, amounts to a textbook just war theory: 1) a war that must be one of last resort (Al Qaeda attacked us first and with terrible damage—3,000 deaths on 9/11); 2) it must be proportional (we only kill those who are trying to kill us), and 3) it must be in self-defense (since we did not start the war, at least according to Obama’s reading of history).

Obama, however, is deeply aware of the “proximate” nature of this form of war. Civilians have died due to U.S. drone attacks, despite the fact that every precaution has been taken. Still, as he says, this terrible tragedy must be weighed against the fact that Al Qaeda was attempting to kill not only more of our civilians but civilians in other countries as well. The death of innocent civilians is something that Obama must bear, as he says, “on his conscience.” Obama also argues that all of these options have limits, so with the end of the Afghanistan War in 2014 and the fact that Al Qaeda has been decimated, there are simply fewer targets to destroy and so there is an end in sight.

A key issue in the drone strikes, however, is a tricky problem that the Attorney General recently revealed that four U.S. Citizens have been killed by the attacks. President Obama argues that this is justified since we would never give special rights to a random shooter to kill, say, in a public place in the United States, we would seek to stop him and kill him if necessary. Likewise, as in the case of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. Citizen, who had repeatedly planned or executed various terrorists acts, the drone attack that killed him was justified because it saved lives.

Obama wants to go even further, by noting that Congress and multiple chains of command that have been been informed and approved of each action. This is not a one-man show.

From many perspectives, Obama makes a careful moral and theological justification for what he has done in the name of the United State as our Theologian-in-Chief. Needless to say, for those uninformed by the history of Western theology and its ethical traditions, the ability to understand what Obama is saying is severely undercut. This, we contend, is the real tragedy, for as Obama showed us in his generous handling of a heckler over his Gitmo policy, he is open to debate, if only we have the tools to contend with him.

Indeed there are theological ways around Obama’s “proximate justice.” There is a long tradition in Christian ethics of pacifism that argues on a value rational basis, that killing of any kind is by principle wrong. And many, in fact, would argue that Jesus himself is the greatest example of one who sacrificed his life for the sake of others. And, of course, as soon as Christianity became a part of the state (under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century), this tradition of pacifism becomes marginalized. It now only exists in small communities like the Quakers and Mennonites who carry on these traditions of altruism—embodied in important intellectual and theological voices including the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, to name but two prominent recent theologians.

We are certainly cheered that we have a president who knows his humanities. We also recognize that there will be a variety of reactions to his speech today. Some of us will view his actions as deeply and morally troubling. For others, they reflect a mind attuned to the moral complexities of leading a nation, while for still other parties, we would imagine, Obama’s utilitarian and proximate forms of justice are exactly right. But what we are trying to say is that it would do us all well to study Reinhold Niebuhr to understand where Obama’s views are coming from so that all of these views can be joined in intelligent public debate. When we lose the humanities we may not only be jeopardizing our soul, but throwing away a public good, the tools that we use to converse with each other and with a president expressing a specific theological justification for his actions. Our theological and ethical traditions are not simply optional disciplines for the leisure class, but are precisely the tools that allow us to discern a way through the thicket of issues we face each of every day not only in international politics but in the spiritual politics of our everyday lives framed by geopolitical and economic realities.

For further reading, we recommend Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History; and from the pacifist side of the spectrum, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and Stanley Hauerwas’s A Better Hope, his Gifford Lectures With the Grain of the Universe, and his recent volume, War and the American Difference.


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