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This Was No Ho-Hum Speech: In Praise of Just War

And I sure hope it is not met with a yawn. Actually, the street and academic ultras of the left had begun to carp even before the president's acceptance address. Afghanistan had already more than begun to set them on edge. So Obama's critics on the right don't quite know what to say. After all, he sounded all of the required notes for a nation that now finds itself in two wars and in lots of skirmishes. Yes, many commentators found it a bit awkward that he gave possibly the most hawkish (for want of a better word) speech of his now near-year tenure just as he morphed into the Nobel Peace Laureate.

Ratcheting up the strategic and military rhetoric may well have been more onerous for Obama than actually dispatching troops and weapons. But it seems to me that it may reflect the disappointments he has experienced in his own diplomacy, short-lived though it has been. He was showered with blandishments, the most flattering probably being the Nobel itself. I cannot imagine, however, that the benefactors of Oslo are finding it easy to reconcile the man to whom they awarded the plaudit and the man who took it.

The most morally dramatic theme in the speech is the part in praise of "just war," a concept reworked in our time by TNR contributing editor Michael Walzer, who has also dealt with the subtleties and complexities of the concept in our pages. The president's tribute to the idea, caveats notwithstanding, couldn't have come at more a crucial time. For the last few years and with ever greater intensity in recent months, apologists for wars of terror have been attempting to besmirch the integrity of battles fought by soldiers in uniforms, with rules of engagement for ground warfare and battle from the skies. The aim is to disarm psychologically and factually armies which fight by rules in favor of irregulars for whom every opponent is apt, even and sometimes especially non-combatants. The Goldstone Report was just one episode in this onslaught. The attack on the American use of drones in AfPak is another.

The president's ongoing paeans to the United Nations show that he has not rigorously dwelt on the enemies of just war. It happens to be the United Nations, which cannot and really doesn't demonstrate an instinct to stop the wild wars of the developing world, where hatred and bloodshed constitute the very currency of politics, that is the enabler of this endless violence.