In Part 1, a look at the inevitability of mission creep.
President Obama has said that he and other Americans are weary, fatigued of war. That may well suit his own thinking, but I think American’s weariness is more than just fatigue at the presence of conflict; it’s an exhaustion with the justifying of it all.
Author Herman Wouk put it best, in the words of Julien Benda, a character in his book, ‘The Winds of War.’ He wrote: “Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind.”
In an address to the UN in September, President Obama distorted that admonition against militarism and modified it into sort of a ‘war is peace’ declaration, insisting that,
The United States will never shy away from defending our interests, but nor will we shrink from the promise of this institution and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the notion that peace is not merely the absence of war, but the presence of a better life.
Indeed, Barack Obama, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, actually used that occasion which celebrated peace to lay down justifications for war; ‘Just Wars‘ he called them. The new president wrapped his militarism in a blanket of history in his acceptance speech in Oslo. He spoke with the detachment of a professor lecturing students about a “living testimony” to the “moral force” of the teachings of King and Gandhi; a U.S. president who just happened to be commander-in-chief over dual, bloody occupations.
War and peace, in Mr. Obama’s presentation, were inseparably intertwined throughout history with America rising above it all – virtuous and correct in the flexing of our military muscle abroad in this age, because of our righteousness in the defining wars we waged with our allies against the Third Reich and Japan. That American virtue, in Mr. Obama’s estimation, made evident by our leadership in setting the terms of international patronage, diplomacy, and ‘just’ war.
Mr. Obama began his speech by attempting to rationalize the obvious contradiction of a wartime president accepting a ‘peace’ prize. He downplayed the occupation in Iraq he had prolonged, distanced himself from the one he intended to redefine and escalate in Afghanistan, and declared himself responsible for, and “filled with questions” surrounding his sending of ‘young Americans’ to fight and die abroad:
“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize,” he told the committee, “is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.
“Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict — filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.”
The president acknowledged civil, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts around the world, which he observed are on the rise, without mention of our own nation’s part in fueling, funding, and deliberately or clumsily exacerbating many of those into perpetuity.
In Iraq, the war that the president insisted at the time was ‘winding down,’ our nation’s invasion and overthrow of the sovereign government was the catalyst to chaos and civil and sectarian unrest and violence. Our military forces’ inability to stifle or eliminate the killings there, despite our “surged-up,” lingering occupation was a less than ringing endorsement of any inherent wisdom behind the opportunistic exercise of our dominating, devastating military forces abroad.
I’m old enough to remember when all of Bush’s intelligence agencies reported that our military forces and military action in Iraq was having the effect of creating more ‘terrorists’ than we were putting down. His administration’s 2006 National Intelligence Estimate said the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was actually fueling terrorism, not ending it; his Iraq war creating an even worse threat to the U.S. and our interests and allies.
The president admitted his own lack of a ‘definitive solution’ to it all in his Norway speech. Absent a definitive solution, the president said, we must be prepared to act when we feel that war is ‘justified:’
“A decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale,” he said.
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
It’s obvious what the president was alluding to. There aren’t many who would question America’s pursuit of justice in the wake of the 9-11 plane crashes. Chasing bin-Laden and his cohorts into Afghanistan, and the rout of his Taliban accomplices to Pakistan was a reasonable response to most looking on.
The prevention of genocide, as the president couched his initial order for airstrikes in Iraq, is certainly a noble and understandable goal. Yet, there’s a nagging question of how much of the president’s militarism today in Afghanistan, or now in Iraq, can be justified as part and parcel of anything one might believe was worthwhile in Bush’s original pursuit; or even integral to some defense of our national security as defined in the original authorizations to use military force.
The emerging practice from politicians in Washington is to construct mechanisms of preemptive aggression in the vain hope of keeping war at bay. Is there anything more delusional than fomenting war to prevent war? Production for use.
That ‘ambivalence’ to military action the president represented as universal to any conflict, is fiction; at least in America. Our nation’s citizens didn’t start out ambivalent to chasing bin-Laden into Afghanistan. They became ambivalent when that effort was distorted into opportunistic nation-building – all the while with the fugitive terror suspects that were at the heart and soul of the military mission left free to instigate and motivate violent resistance against our nation’s strident military presence and activity across sovereign borders, mostly by the virtue of their seemingly deliberate freedom from justice.
The nation became ambivalent when those occupations, in turn, were escalated to advantage the politics behind propped-up regimes. The opposition to America’s military force abroad was deepened in the ‘extraordinary renditions’ by our military and intelligence agencies; and in the indefinite imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans without charges or counsel – many held and tortured as in Gitmo – many tortured and disappeared in ‘black sites’ in compliant nations.
We’ve been told by the administration and the military that there are relatively few individuals thought to be in Afghanistan or Iraq who are al-Qaida; now that threat they perceive taking the form of a new ‘enemy called ISIS. Yet the U.S. military aggression in defense of regimes we helped ascend to power in corrupt elections is directed against an entirely different enemy who is operating against the U.S. ‘interest’ in our maintaining ethically-challenged regimes in dominance over the very people we pretend to be defending.
At the end of his 2009 address, the president quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks in the civil rights leader’s own Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. As Dr. King said at that occasion so many years ago:
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him … We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace …
It’s understandable that President Obama would want to justify his own duplicity between his stated ideals against ‘dumb wars’ with a declaration of a pursuit of peace behind his own exercise of military force; or as a defense against what he correctly terms genocide; against this (relatively) newly recognized faction of combatants threatening a newly recognized faction of civilians in Iraq.
Yet, King’s answer to the dilemma the president faces was non-violence. His own Nobel acceptance speech was a promotion of peace and love, not a litany of excuses for militarism.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” King said in 1967. “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
And, so it goes.
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