Executive Power

David Luban on President Obama and Just War Theory

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, June 8, 2012, 6:47 AM

Writing in the Boston Review, Georgetown professor David Luban has this essay on President Obama's drone war and just war theory, in which aides report the president is steeped:

This image of a president schooled in just war theory is remarkable. At least one Catholic Web site has poured scorn on “the wise, judicious philosopher-king consulting Aquinas and Augustine before sending a drone missile on a ‘signature strike’ on a group of picnickers in Yemen or farmers in Pakistan.” (Perhaps the sarcasm is deserved—there have indeed been catastrophic mistakes in targeting—but Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al Qaeda second-in-command, was no picnicker or farmer.)

We of course have no idea how serious a student of just war theory the president is, but there is no reason to suspect that his aides are making it up. That entitles us to ask what the president may have taken from these two Christian writers and, more important, whether their arguments in fact support the morality of the president’s actions. What we find is a messy mix of insights and errors, by the saints as well as the president. The central themes of just war theory are easy to grasp: that war is a proper subject of moral judgment and that no leader should duck responsibility for making these judgments. Obama seems to understand that much. But today’s debate about drones centers on more specific questions about targeting, civilian deaths, and who should make the crucial decisions. On these issues Augustine and Aquinas offer scant guidance. Furthermore, the Times reports that the CIA uses dishonest rules for counting civilian casualties. If Obama acquiesces to such deceits, all the just war theory in the world will make no difference.

The verdict on Obama turns on the morality of targeted killings themselves. In my view, they are no different in principle from other wartime killings, and they have to be judged by the same standards of necessity and proportionality applied to warfare in general: sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. There are no simple answers.