President Obama And 'The Violence Of Peace'

President Obama greets troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Dec. 3, 2010. i i

President Obama greets troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan last month. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama greets troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Dec. 3, 2010.

President Obama greets troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan last month.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Back when he was a candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama won the support of many voters for his vocal stance against the Iraq War. But when he took the oath of office to become president, he inherited not only the Iraq conflict, but also a war in Afghanistan and the wider fight his predecessor called the "war on terror."

While Obama may have campaigned as a peace president, in the book The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama, author Stephen Carter argues that the president's war policies are very similar to those of former President George W. Bush. And, Carter says, by authorizing a troop surge in Afghanistan and stepped-up drone attacks in Pakistan, Obama's war policies have actually expanded beyond those of his predecessor.

To some degree, Carter writes, that's because Obama has found — like many presidents before him — that the practicalities of governing a nation at war are often at odds with the ideals he embraced as a candidate.

Cover of The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama

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The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama
By Stephen Carter
Hardcover, 272 pages
Beast Books
List price: $24.99

When it comes to making choices about national security, Carter writes, presidents are often forced "to pick from among several unappealing" options, something critics often fail to recognize.

"To the hater, the world is simple, not complex. The answers are obvious," writes Carter. But in reality, in wartime, even leaders as different as Obama and Bush "may see the world in roughly the same way."

Carter does credit Obama for doing something that too few of his predecessors have done — thinking carefully and reflectively about when the country should and shouldn't go to war.

Two years into the Obama presidency, Carter tells Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan, "it's a little too early to say there's an Obama Doctrine." But in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, Carter says Obama "did lay out a fairly clear and cogent argument for going to war, as he himself said, 'in the face of evil.' "

Carter says Obama's address in Oslo demonstrates that the president has appeared to have adopted at least some tenets of "just-war theory." That view recognizes that war can be justified, says Carter, but it must be a last resort, entered into only when there is a reasonable hope of success and waged using the minimum possible force.

"All of these are ways of thinking not about whether war is legal or illegal," says Carter, "but whether it's right or wrong."

But while Carter says Obama has demonstrated that he thinks carefully about war in the abstract, he also argues the president has done too little to fully explain his rationale for a war he has embraced — the war in Afghanistan.

Carter says Obama has described that war variously as "a war of self-defense," "the war that must be won," and "a war of necessity."

Back in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, Carter says, "it was envisioned then as a war of self-defense ... even sliding over to a kind of vengeance. The notion was, these people came and got us; we're going to go and make sure they can't do that again. ... All right. But now that was nine years ago, and we're still there ... Are we fighting the same people? Are we fighting different people?" Carter asks.

Carter believes that Obama owes the nation "a somewhat clearer definition of what would constitute winning [the war], and how we'll know whether we've won or not."

Excerpt: 'The Violence Of Peace'

Cover of The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama

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itoggle caption
The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama
By Stephen Carter
Hardcover, 272 pages
Beast Books
List price: $24.99

The election of Barack Obama, according to critics and admirers alike, ushered in a new era in American foreign policy. Perhaps. But it did not usher in a new era in American warfare. Under Obama, we fight in much the same way that we did under his predecessor — for similar reasons, with similar justifications. Strip away the soaring rhetoric and you begin to discover what probably we should have known from the start: When it comes to war, presidents do what they think they must.

Obama might have run in 2008 as the peace candidate, but next time around he will be running as a war president. This simple truth cannot be avoided. Although the next presidential election will doubtless feature bitter disputes over domestic policy, it will also be a referendum on Obama as commander in chief of the mightiest armed forces on the face of the globe.

Surely a degree of Barack Obama's electoral victory was due to his successful effort to persuade voters that he was a builder of bridges. It even looks as if he has; not in domestic policy, which remains as polarized as ever, but in his approach to war. True, there were people on the left and right alike who thought that America had elected an antiwar president, but that simply turned out not to be true. Rather, the nation elected a president in the tradition of American wartime leaders: a man ultimately willing, whether or not it was his original intention, to sacrifice idealism for pragmatism in pursuit of his primary duty of keeping the nation safe.

The office of the presidency, once assumed, transforms the outlook of its holder. If the first job of the executive is the protection of the nation's security, the choices presented when the commander in chief must actually sit in the Oval Office and make a decision turn out to be few. The need to pick from among several unappealing ways to defend the nation is what separates presidents from pundits. I believe that much of the virulent hatred directed at President Obama's predecessor, and at Obama himself, arises from a rejection of this proposition. To the hater, the world is simple, not complex. The answers are obvious. "If the president were only as clear-eyed and wise as I am," the protester thinks, "he would see the world as it truly is, and make better decisions." It turns out, however, that in time of war, very different presidents may see the world in roughly the same way.

President Obama has even contended for means that Bush did not — the right to assassinate American citizens, for instance — and seems to have greatly increased the use of everything from remote missile strikes to secret military operations.

President Obama, succeeding President George W. Bush, largely adopted Bush's approach to Iraq; decided to use a version of that approach in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan; and widened the terror war beyond the targets pursued by the Bush administration. In the end, the administration even adopted parts of the Bush doctrine. True, Obama cast aside its more idealistic aspect: using American power to build democracy. On the other hand, President Obama has adopted wholeheartedly what we might call the Bush doctrine's political science: the determination to fight our enemies overseas, eliminating them where possible, rather than wait to be attacked.

There is a trope about President Obama, a meme he must set himself to battle: the notion that he cares about domestic policy but has no passion even for a war he insists is a necessity. Middle East expert Fouad Ajami put it this way: "He fights the war with Republican support, but his constituency remains isolationist at heart."

The claim about Obama's constituency may be true — who knows? — but I see no reason to be skeptical of the president's determination to pursue both the Afghan War and the terror war. True, for reasons that are not clear, Obama rarely speaks of victory. This is unfortunate. Wars do have victors, and they do have losers, and if you believe in what you are doing, then it is better to win than to lose. If these are unjust wars, then President Obama should stop prosecuting them, immediately, not at some promised future date. If on the other hand they are just wars, then he should articulate a moral obligation to prevail.

Certainly Obama seems to believe that the obligation exists. Indeed, the president's words and actions suggest very few limits on what he is willing to do to win the wars he seems determined to fight. In this, as many critics have pointed out, Obama seems not too different from Bush. Perhaps what were seen in Bush as character flaws — and what are seen in Obama as surprises — should be counted as neither. Perhaps they are simply the measures a reflective leader might reluctantly take to protect a nation under threat from a new kind of enemy. And if some of these measures — the continued use of prisoner renditions, for example — seem to violate the very theory of just war that the president espouses, the quickest way to end the abuses may be to win.

Most wars wane in popularity as they drag on. A RAND study suggests that the American people tend to support wars as long as America is perceived to be winning. But how is the public to figure out who's winning? I mean this question quite seriously. How many battles of the Iraq War can the reader name? How many from Afghanistan? Out of either ignorance or condescension, the modern news media rarely tell us. One night a year or so after the fall of Baghdad, my wife and I were watching the evening news. The anchor recounted a fierce battle in southern Iraq, and told us how many American soldiers died. Here is what he did not tell us: what piece of ground the battle was contesting, what difference it made who prevailed, and who won. This is not, as the right would have it, some mystical antiwar bias. This is simple ineptitude.

How many Americans today can identify Takur Ghar, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Afghan War? Takur Ghar was a small part of Operation Anaconda, an all-out assault on al Qaeda forces in March 2002. The battle was over possession of a mountaintop, a 10,000-foot peak perfect for offensive and defensive military operations. In the end, Anaconda was a mixed success. Military analysts learned a good deal from what went wrong. In the Vietnam era, the public often participated in such debates, because we received blow-by-blow accounts from the battlefield. Many opponents of the war, back then, took pride in following its progress, the better to dissect it. Today is different. Some in the press tried to cover Anaconda, but America seemed to pay little attention. Somehow Anaconda, like the other important engagements of Iraq and Afghanistan, has dropped off the radar. We manage to pronounce upon the war without troubling to understand it.

Here, I think, President Obama could help. We have all seen the passion with which he battles for his vision of what the nation's health-care system should look like, or how the financial sector should be regulated. If he would bring the same determination to rallying the public in support of his wars — yes, his wars now, nobody else's — he would do more than anyone else can to truly support the troops.

Although President Obama has spoken of the possibility of using military force for humanitarian purposes, he considers defense of the nation his highest duty, and there are few Americans who would disagree. The manner in which he interprets this mandate turns out to be little different from the interpretation offered by President Bush. President Obama has even contended for means that Bush did not — the right to assassinate American citizens, for instance — and seems to have greatly increased the use of everything from remote missile strikes to secret military operations. The sharp debate over the ways in which Obama has supposedly unraveled Bush policies is, as one observer noted, "mostly window dressing for just what was going on before." On matters of the nation's security, at least, the Oval Office evidently changes the outlook of its occupant far more than the reverse.

Of course, the existence of a consensus does not mean that the consensus is right: Both presidents could be wrong. (As on some issues I think they are.) We should be engaged in open and public debate over the morality of what American armed forces are asked to do. We are a nation founded on the notion of dissent, and trying to control what people can say is wrong. On the other hand, at minimum, the existence of a consensus does suggest that some of the more wildly hyperbolic critics of President Bush may owe him an apology. Otherwise, by muting themselves now, they might seem to be playing partisan games with the lives of American service members — and the lives of those we ask them to kill.


From The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama by Stephen Carter. Copyright 2011 by Stephen Carter. Excerpted by permission of Beast Books. All rights reserved.

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