NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination, in part, because of his stance against the war in Iraq. As president, he inherited not just that conflict but a war in Afghanistan and the wider fight against al-Qaeda and other groups that his predecessor labeled the war on terror.
Now, two years after he took office, it's clear that President Obama's war policies are very similar to those of President Bush, except where he's expanded the fight. He sent thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, for example, sharply increased drone attacks in Pakistan. He's also approved the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen now in Yemen, believed to have been involved in the Fort Hood shootings and the failed Christmas Day bombing of an airliner.
In a new book, law professor and novelist Stephen Carter examines the morality of Obama's war through the lens of the just war theory and argues that his policies conform to those of many American presidents and many American wars. Put simply, he writes, we fight to win.
Is there a difference between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, between the war policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, why Keith Olbermann signed off on Friday night. But first, Stephen Carter joins us from a studio at Yale University in New Haven, where he's a professor of law. His new book is "The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama." And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. STEPHEN CARTER (Author, "The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama"): It's nice to be back. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And is there an Obama doctrine?
Mr. CARTER: It's a little too early to say there's an Obama doctrine, but in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in December, 2009, he did lay out a fairly clear and cogent argument for going to war, as he himself said, in the face of evil.
At the top of the hour, you played a little bit of that speech, where he spoke about evil. The very next couple of lines after that are really the really interesting part, where he went on to say that when evil does exist in the world, sometimes you have no choice but to confront it by force of arms.
CONAN: Nonviolence, he said, would not have defeated Hitler's armies.
Mr. CARTER: That's what he said, and he tried to limit it. He said he would limit it, from what I could tell of the speech, to self-defense, and also to defense of others.
That is, what he suggested, which would be a break from what other American presidents have done, is that, for example in the face of a genocide taking place elsewhere in the world, that it might be appropriate for American forces to go stand between the perpetrators and the victims of the genocide. No American president has ever suggested that quite as clearly as President Obama did in that speech.
CONAN: In retrospect, did Bill Clinton, talking about Rwanda, but in any case, not while he was in office. Going back, though, to that speech that's probably the most carefully thought-out and articulated version of his thoughts on war, he cited - gave a list of examples of when it was right for the United States to use force, as you said, self-defense, and linked them to the long-standing thoughts about just war that go back to Catholic theologians, well, back to the fourth century.
Mr. CARTER: I think Obama did us a great service in that speech, and there's an interesting way in which we, the American people, owe him a service in return.
One of the things that's often been missing in discussions of war in the United States, to go, not to go, is any sort of deep reflection on the nature of war and the morality of war.
Obama clearly, by personality, is a reflective person. People say he's a little bit cerebral. Just war theory, which is a part of Western philosophy and does, as you said, come originally from Catholicism, just war theory provides a framework for thinking about war, and it's clearly one that he finds attractive.
In just war thinking, you have to have a just cause to go to war, but war also has to be a last resort, and you have to have reasonable success. And then when you fight the war, you have to do it in a way that uses the minimum possible force and doesn't target noncombatants and so on.
And all of those are ways of thinking not about whether war is legal or illegal but whether it's right or wrong. And I think by inviting us to think about right and wrong instead of legal or illegal, the president is inviting us into a reflective conversation about war, which I hope we can have without the usual nonpartisan - I'm sorry, the usual partisan screeching that is part of so many of our debates about policy in the United States.
CONAN: Well, however, before we leave the issue of legality, a lot of people said: Look, the previous president, George W. Bush, went to the United Nations to try to get legal cover for an invasion of Iraq, did not get it and went anyway, that the war on that basis was illegal.
Mr. CARTER: Yeah, I don't think - I don't agree with those international lawyers who believe that a war has to be approved by the United Nations to be legal. So I'm not sure whether the war in Iraq was illegal.
But I do think that as a moral matter, it was a war that was very difficult to justify. Even if you accepted all the Bush administration's premises about the presence of weapons of mass destruction and so on, that still doesn't tell you whether your own country is in serious and imminent danger or not.
And absent that, it's difficult, in just war thinking, to justify that war. President Obama, in his speech, largely ignored the Iraq war, but he described the war in Afghanistan as a war of self-defense.
He's also elsewhere called it the war that must be won and a war of necessity. And my main quarrel with the president on those points, with President Obama on those points, is that if he thinks it's a war that must be won, he owes us, I think, a somewhat clearer definition of what would constitute winning it and how we'll know whether we've won or not.
CONAN: Both things that are quite murky in a situation, well, of unreliable partners. It's a little unclear as to how many of the Taliban you might bring over to one side or the other, what situation you might leave in.
Mr. CARTER: No, I think that's right. And part of the problem is that when people look at the war in Afghanistan, when you look at when the war was popular, back in October and November of 2001, it was envisioned then as a war in self-defense, or you could say even sliding over a little bit 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, and are we fighting the same people, are we fighting different people?
Although the president insists on the importance of winning this war, I don't think he's given us a clear explanation of what and when it would be. My hope is that tomorrow, in his State of the Union message, he might actually answer that.
CONAN: And you also point out that, at least you argue, that Afghanistan in the sense of yes, we were attacked from forces based in Afghanistan, the purpose of the war was to prevent another attack, at least nine years ago. The purpose of the war in Iraq was to prevent an attack. The idea of those wars, despite their provocation, was different. But the idea of those wars was the same.
Mr. CARTER: I think the idea is very similar, and even today, if you look at the most recent White House report, the declassified part of it, about the Afghan war that came out in December, what the White House talks about as progress in the war means keeping the Taliban out of power.
Now, that's described in the report as though that's obviously part of the self-defense of the United States. Maybe it is, but that seems to me a sufficiently difficult issue that it's one worth talking about, that is, whether keeping the Taliban out of power is sufficiently closely related to self-defense of the United States that we ought to be spending lives and resources and also killing in order to accomplish it.
CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Carter, author most recently of "The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama." 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. What is the morality behind America's wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere, as it pursues al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations? And let's go first to David(ph), David with us from St. Paul.
DAVID (Caller): Hello, Neal and Dr. Carter. It's great to hear from you. I had a discussion with your screener, but I think that now that we -you mentioned the war aim of keeping the Taliban out of power. That's a fairly comprehensive concept, and it raises the question, where?
Clearly, we don't want the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, but we also seem to have - we actually have a serious interest in not having them come to power in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, as well. In fact, I would argue that that may be the more important aim in our situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I also would say that, you know, the premise that - your introductory premise of Mr. Obama's and Mr. Bush's policies being very similar or the same, as far as war policies, you know, war policy again, as Mr. Carter pointed out, has to do in many cases, or hopefully in most cases, in the first instance, as to why you go to war in the first place.
And I think that there, you know, based on your discussion of just war theory, they are very different in some ways. I mean, clearly Mr. Obama objects to why we went to Iraq in the first place. He doesn't have a problem at all with why we went into Afghanistan.
I would also suggest that from a budgetary and a standpoint of governance, you know, the idea that we would go to war in either place without raising taxes and making the American people pay for the war; also without conserving strategic resources, especially in the case of Iraq; and then, of course, without exposing the able-bodied male and now female sections of the population for the eventuality or possibility of participation in combat by reactivating, in a full sense, the Selective Service System. That also goes into one's attitudes about how one fights a war once one is started and whether one starts one in the first place.
CONAN: But Stephen Carter, does it go to morality?
Mr. CARTER: Well, there were a lot of really good points in David's question. I'm going to stick to two of them, and maybe these are the two easy ones, I don't know.
First, on the last point, it is true, I think, that neither President Bush nor President Obama, in prosecuting these wars, has said to the American people these wars are so important that you need to sacrifice for them.
So when we think of sacrifice, we think of getting extra screening at the airport. We argue over that. But the caller, in talking about taxes or the draft or things like that, is pointing to the way war used to be understood in the United States, what used to be called total war. The notion was the nation, if it's going to be a long and difficult war, commits itself in ways that are sacrificial, and the shared sacrifice helps force the government to have to justify the war.
Now, the Pentagon says it doesn't - pardon, doesn't need the draft, and both administrations have said they don't need to raise taxes to pay for the wars. I'm not going to go into whether they need to or not. I do agree with the premise that the sacrifice issue is important, especially in a long and difficult war.
But on the - the other part I wanted to mention, though, the caller pointed out that the problem isn't just the Taliban in Afghanistan. There's a broad range of problems. And although...
CONAN: And this will not be a short thought. So I'm going to hold you right there, and we'll get to it after a short break. David, stay with us on the line, we'll put you on hold, and we'll get back to that because one of the premises of Stephen Carter's book is if you look at President Obama's words and deeds over the past two years about his war policies, it will give you an insight into what he may do or may have to do if there is another situation that may, well, require thought about American intervention.
So Pakistan, it's a place to think about it. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The man who many considered a peace candidate, in the last election, was transformed into a war president, thus writes Yale law professor Stephen Carter in his new book, "The Violence Of Peace: America's Wars In The Age Of Obama."
Americans often assume their commanders in chief have vast decision-making power. When it comes to national security, Stephen Carter argues presidents are often forced to pick from very few, unappealing options. You can read more about why very different presidents can see the world in similar ways in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Stephen Carter is still with us. We want to hear from you. Is there a difference between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How do you look at war policy through the lens of morality? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at that aforementioned website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our caller, Jeff, is still with us - excuse me, our caller David is still with us from St. Paul, and Stephen Carter, you were about to address his question about, well, it's not just a question of keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan but perhaps in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, as well.
Mr. CARTER: Yes, and actually, I'm going to be very brief. I think that what David has asked about is exactly what Obama has realized, that although the war on terror, as it's often called, not a phrase Obama likes to use, but nevertheless, the war on terror was one of the most controversial parts of the so-called Bush doctrine that Obama, once in office, seems not only to have endorsed it but to have widened it.
He seems to have a very broad sense of the places in the world where America faces threats. He's authorized special forces in countries where his predecessor didn't use them. He's using many more drone attacks.
In his eulogy for the seven CIA officers who were killed in Afghanistan, President Obama said that the job of the intelligence community is to eliminate our enemies, and in the context of the speech, it's clear he meant eliminate them before they can attack us.
So although it's self-defense, in a sense, what's really striking about this broader war is the notion that you try to get good enough intelligence that you know who you think is going to attack you, and then you get them first.
CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Christopher(ph), Christopher with us from Mill Valley in California.
CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Good morning, gentlemen, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
CHRISTOPHER: I just had a quick point to make and then a question or -piggyback on what Mr. Carter is saying. It seems to me that in - asking the question whether or not the United States or when, at what point, do we define winning the war, you know, when does Obama lay that out, it seems to me - and I use the "war" in quotes because it's kind of happening in a lot of different places, it seems at this point. It seems to me that really what's in the best interest of the United States, as President Obama pointed out in his speech, the Nobel Peace Prize speech, is that if we can manage to keep our, quote-unquote, "enemies" off-guard or destabilize or pitted against each other, in some sense we do win, or we do create instability so that no particular group or something, you know, rises up.
Now, I realize that's a very, it's a long-term projection, and it's also up to a lot of debate because people, you know, a lot of people feel, and myself included, that if you allow forces of good to rise up, and children get educations, and these places in the world where people are, you know, desperately poor and in constant war for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, they can make a better life.
In the case of the president, it seems to me that he has interests of the United States at heart, and it must be a very difficult balancing act. And I'm glad that - thank you, Mr. Carter, for writing about these kinds of things and bringing it to our attention because I'm no scholar, but, you know, books like this help me see a broader picture. So that was the point I wanted to make.
CONAN: All right. Stephen Carter?
Mr. CARTER: I should say that part of what led to my writing this book, and I actually put other projects aside to work on it, was this really striking sense that in Obama, we had a man who had clearly, most of his supporters believed this was the man who was going to make peace around the world.
And clearly, a lot of those who were against him thought he's going to somehow run down the American military or something. And neither side turned out to be right.
That is, once in office, faced with a menu of actual threats around the world, he behaved, in a way, like a lot of American presidents, a combination of pragmatism and ferocity. The pragmatism of believing there are actual threats that have to be stopped and then the ferocity of stopping them, often with enormous force.
And so if you think about the use of drone missiles, for example, and President Obama has used them now at more than twice the rate that his predecessor did, they don't always make the evening news, but they do often miss their targets. Or if they hit their targets, they take out a lot of other people, too.
That's a ferocious tool, you might say, for trying to get people you think have attacked us or are about to attack us and one I think we should have more debate about.
CONAN: And one that - and thanks very much for the call, Christopher -emphasizes something you emphasize in the book, the quality of intelligence. Obviously, this is important. If the only way to strike at the leadership of the Taliban in al-Qaeda in Pakistan is through drone attacks, well, they're an important tool. Nevertheless, the good intelligence is proper to hit a meeting of leaders, as opposed to a wedding party.
Mr. CARTER: And we have hit far too many wedding parties. But of course, it's that need for good intelligence that led to the temptation in the Bush administration to torture some suspects.
And I think that came out of a sense of frantic fear. What are these people going to do next, and how are we going to get that information out of them? It was a terrible episode in our history, and I hope we don't repeat it. But at the same time, there is a real question here that the point of the war against terror, which Obama is continuing to fight, is to prevent the United States from being struck by people who are going to blow up buildings and planes and so on.
You have to get good intelligence to do that, and the challenge of how you get good intelligence has been an immense one that we've got a lot of intelligence, I gather, over the last few years that haven't been the very serious attacks here that we've seen in some places in Europe, and of course today in Moscow.
But nevertheless, I think it's a continuing challenge how to defend their values so you don't use certain kinds of methods that we should stay away from, but at the same time get the information to prevent these attacks from taking place.
CONAN: Go next to Giles(ph), Giles with us from Denver.
GILES (Caller): Yes, I take as my authority for what I'm about to ask, conversations I had with two constitutional law professors, one from Harvard the other from the University of Colorado at Boulder, after they were interviewed at National Public Radio.
My question is the following: I have nowhere heard anyone go to the point of addressing the fundamental issue that we are actually not at war, since Section 2 of the Constitution has not been invoked by congressional approval, therefore.
The two professors, to paraphrase slightly, agree that fundamentally, we are in a constitutional crisis, which seems to me to be of rather more importance than being attacked by particular groups, in particular countries, at particular times.
CONAN: Constitutional crisis that...
GILES: (Unintelligible) why the press seems to have uniformly glossed over this point.
CONAN: Well, Stephen Carter?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I don't know if the press has glossed over it or not. I've taught constitutional law, and the war power in particular, for almost 30 years now. And I don't - I'm well aware of the theory that's out there, that the U.S. can't legally fight without a declaration of war. I just don't think it's true.
That is, the Declaration of War Clause, what we know about its history, was included in the Constitution in keeping with the international law as understood at the time. It was a way of giving warning to third parties who might be starving the ships on the high seas or something like that.
But there's only been one declaration of war in the world since 1948. No one declares war anymore. It's not how conflicts come about. And of the roughly 200 armed conflicts the United States has been involved in, and the dozen or so major ones, only about four have involved full declarations of war.
I think Congress has gone along, de facto, by providing funds and so on. And I think if there is a crisis, the real crisis isn't so much whether Congress has declared war or not. Here, I think the caller is right. The crisis is that Congress tends to roll over when presidents say national security.
That is, as soon as the president says - and any president, Democratic or Republican - says we're going to be attacked, or we've been attacked, or we need this or that for our security, the floodgates of money open, and Congress funds pretty much whatever the president asks for.
GILES: If I may interject a point here...
Later on, there's often regret, and there's congressional investigations and so on, but I'd like to deal with investigations and those regrets before we provide the money.
CONAN: Giles, you were going to say?
GILES: The law professor at Harvard, who I have to admit whose name I do not remember, when asked about a lawsuit by a citizen challenging the engagement of troops in these kinds of conflicts, said that members of Congress had, under - when Bush I occurred in Iraq, sought to go to court.
And the courts refused to accept the suit, saying this was a disagreement between the Congress and the executive branch that would have to be handled between those two groups, that there was no legal recourse.
So I'm afraid I would suggest that the issue of how many was have been declared and how many have not may well be a moot point and, in any event, it - to my -from my perspective, begs the fundamental question of the constitutionality and whether we are - what we are going to see is erosions in other areas, as well.
Prof. CARTER: I think that's a great question and a very important point. And we have seen a lot of erosions, in that sense. We've seen an enormous growth since - really, since Lincoln - in presidential authority beyond anything the framers are wanted, and that we saw the growth begin with Lincoln, and then we saw it explode after Roosevelt. It's not only a matter of presidential supremacy over the legislature. It's also a matter of the number of people who simply work in the White House. But that's a story for another day.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. Let's go to Bryan, Bryan with us from Canton, in Ohio.
BRYAN (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
BRYAN: Yeah. My - I'm certainly going to be not taking this position -or nobody's going to take my position, but I studied the early Ante-Nicene church for a long time, the first 300 years. And it should be noted that it was clear, clear to them that war was unacceptable in any matter, and that should be stated.
But my point with the just war theory that we're talking about is that there's two major problems with it. One is we never address the issues of where we are culpable, whether it's - I'm referring most to back in the '50s, which got us in trouble with Iran, or a number of dictators we've supported. We don't ever address that and stop doing that.
Second issue is, with the just war theory, we tend to take those theories and make it fit wherever we need. So that goes with Clinton in Kosovo, or Iraq or whatever. We find a way to make the just war fit. And one writer, (unintelligible), put in there, instead of saying killing men, put in those just war theories raping women and see if it sounds right to you. It's just a different perspective on it, of why we don't do that, and how we try to make our thinking fit our perspective ideas.
CONAN: Philosophical opportunism, I think is his charge, here.
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Prof. CARTER: Two very quick responses. On the history, which I do actually talk about a little bit in the book, it's true that the early church was a pacifist, although there's some debate about exactly why it was. The just war theory arose precisely to help Christians figure out if there were occasions when they could, consistently with their faith, go off to fight for the emperor or not.
But as to the last point, which I think is a really interesting one, it is true that the United States, over the years, has supported a lot of unsavory dictators and other characters, but I'm not sure which way that cut. So I'm struck by Christopher Hitchens' comment about the war in Iraq. Christopher Hitchens' has made the point that if the United States is the one who supported Saddam Hussein all these years, why isn't it our job to get rid of him, too? His view was that that's an argument in favor of going into a war, not against it. I'm not saying he's right. I'm saying these are the sorts of interesting conversations I think we ought to be having.
CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Carter about his new book, "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And are we having these conversations? Are these thoughts about the proper conduct of war, about the morality of war, about the legality of war? Are they being held? And you point out that it is likely - whether we want to think about it or not - that these situations are going to be coming up in the future?
Prof. CARTER: Well, that's right. And we don't know what's going to challenge us next. We don't know if the next problem, major terrorist attacks or some other kind of conflict. But one of the things about President Obama's Nobel address that really struck me was his concern about genocide. President Clinton, after leaving office, said that the worst mistake he made in office was not to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda, which left something between 300,000 to a million dead. And I think that Obama is plainly sensitive to that.
But one of the downsides of these long, exhausting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it's not clear that the American people would have the stomach to go to war to protect some suffering people somewhere, even if the political will existed in our leadership.
CONAN: And political will is another aspect of - well, that's part of your just war theory. Can we have success if it's going to be a long, grinding war? History suggests the American people do not support it after a certain period of time.
Prof. CARTER: You know, that's true that - it's interesting that the Americans will support wars, even with high casualties - that's what the data tells us - even - as long as they think America is winning. But if they think America is losing or they think that we're at a stalemate, the level of support for a war tends to drop. And I think part of what's causing it to drop in Afghanistan is precisely that sense that, not only it's a stalemated now, but it's been stalemated for some time. And I know that the administration has lately made progress, for example, of retaking Kandahar.
But if you look over the years we've been in Afghanistan, the number of times we've retaken Kandahar, it boggles the mind. We're making the same progress over and over again: two steps forward, and one step back.
CONAN: There is also the conduct of the conflict. And you argue the media and our political leaders tend to do a very poor job of informing us what war is really like.
Prof. CARTER: I think that's right. And I think we need to do a better job of thinking about what war is like before a war happens. So, for example, when American forces commit atrocities, as at Abu Ghraib, the news media quite rightly bring them to our attention so we can condemn them. But that happens in every war. There's never been a war - you pick the best war you like, the Civil War, World War II - and although overwhelmingly, American troops behave with enormous decorum under enormous pressure, there are always some people who do terrible things. It happens in every war.
One of the ways that I think the news media can help educate us is before we go to war, when we're debating whether to launch an invasion or launch a defense somewhere, to, at that point, in advance, say to us, you know, if you go to war, there are terrible atrocities that will be committed, including some by your side. You have to accept that cost now, as opposed to acting surprised by it later. That's one of the ways, I think, we can have more reflective conversations than we do.
CONAN: Some of those conversations are conducted in Stephen Carter's new book, "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama." The author, Yale University law professor and, of course, novelist, as well, joined us from a studio on the campus at Yale in New Haven.
Thanks very much for your time today.
Prof. CARTER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up next, Bill Carter for the New York Times on Keith Olbermann's surprise announcement to leave MSNBC. Did he push? Was he pushed? Did he jump? Stay tuned.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.