Obama’s critique of Bush’s Holy War

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As Michael Sean Winters has pointed out with asperity, the Beltway reaction to President Obama’s Nobel speech as amounting to an “echo” of George W. Bush has been idiotic. Yes, there’s evil in the world. That was the point of the speech?

But it wasn’t simply that Obama laid out an approach to American war-making that was, in its careful Niebuhrianism, a very far cry from the George Bush who declared as recently as a couple of years ago that “the most realistic way to protect the American people is to provide a
hopeful alternative to the hateful ideology of the enemy, by advancing
liberty across a troubled region.” Read carefully, Obama’s speech charges Bush with conducting an unjust war in Iraq–and hints that the problem with the previous administration was that it had embarked on a holy war.

The word “Iraq” is conspicuous by its absence in the speech. Obama justifies American military action in various times and places–most notably World War II and Afghanistan–but says not one word about the place Bush famously referred to as “a central front in the war on terror.” It is easy to see that, according to the traditional just war principles he laid out, Obama considers Iraq not to have been (as the Vatican made clear at the time) a just war. But why should we think he also considers Bush to have engaged in holy war?

The key paragraphs are these:

As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for
human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we’re
all basically seeking the same things; that we all hope for the chance
to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment
for ourselves and our families.

And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the
cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that
people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular
identities — their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully
their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At
times, it even feels like we’re moving backwards. We see it in the
Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We
see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

And most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to
justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled
the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from
Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of
God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind
us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe
that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for
restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the
Red Cross worker, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped
view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace,
but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith — for
the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we
do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

That reference to the Golden Rule suggests that what’s sauce for the extremists was sauce for the Bush administration as well.

Obama justifies his intriguing (and, I predict, controversial) claim that “no holy war can ever be a just war” on the grounds that a belief that you are carrying out God’s will gives you the license to commit any and all atrocities. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. But it is clear that the current president believes that the U.S. violated proper rules of military conduct under George Bush. By citing his own prohibition of torture, order to close Guantanamo, and pledge to abide by the Geneva Conventions, Obama implicitly leveled that charge at the previous administration.

Why did Bush et al. break the rules? Obama doesn’t say. But he is doubtless aware of the evidence that George Bush believed he was carrying out the divine will in conducting his war on terror. Here’s Nabil Shaath, then Palestinian foreign minister:

President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from
God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in
Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end
the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.

Then there’s Bush’s well-attested effort to enlist the French in the Iraq war by invoking the biblical prophecy of Gog and Magog.

An echo of Bush? No, Obama’s speech was a thorough-going rejection of Bush’s entire faith-based project.