Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum: Obama to Define the Just War

For all his faults — which we do  acknowledge — President Obama has, thus far, shamelessly blazed his own trail through the modern political landscape. As a wise robot once described Beck (the artist not the pundit), the man transcends [political] genres even as he reinvents them.

On that note, when he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, he’ll accept it as a President embroiled in newly deepened war — and he’ll embrace the fact, candidly.

Good for him. Americans generally, and Democrats specifically, need an epoch-making President for an epoch-making age. Despite the horrors of war, which we again acknowledge (and do not embrace lightly), the fact remains that the world is a dangerous place, more dangerous that at any time since the end of the Cold War. For a difficult world, peace is not a tenable option in all our interactions. Our job as Americans isn’t to keep peace at all costs, but to secure peace, by blood and iron if necessary (“…let us die to make men free…”). Setting aside the question of whether Afghanistan is a war of necessity, as I believe it to be, it must be understood, at a fundamental level, that although war is undesirable, it is not intrinsically evil, when done right. We are a nation of citizen-soldiers, and we’ve gladly toppled empires for the right to stay home in peace for a few decades. It’s what we do, and the world is better, and more peaceful, for it. Let’s focus on getting this war right, not on chastising ourselves for its necessity.

Obama, I hope, will show that it is possible to be a “war president” who stands for peace. This nuance may, for many of my compatriots, make the President more and more difficult to love. The day after his inauguration, we theorized as much. But I stick by the conclusion:

[F]or we Democrats, our relationship with President Obama may end up looking less like the brief flare of infatuation with a charismatic politician, and more like a long-term relationship: day-by-day, it won’t always duplicate the magic of the first date, and it may even have its dark moments. But when it’s all over in 2016, we’ll be glad of the relationship, as much for its valleys as its peaks, and we’ll have learned something about ourselves along the way. Time shall tell. For now, at least, let it suffice that we’re glad to see him at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Relatedly, a solemn word of gratitude, which I forgot to add yesterday, for the men and women who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, and the soldiers who fought for their memory, and for all mankind.


  1. Ames,
    I applaud you for trying to split the hair, but I think you need to stop. President Obama came sweeping into office offering the Nation (not just Democrats) “Change we could believe in.” If you’ve read David Plouffe’s recent book about the campaign (as I did), you could touch what that meant.

    What Mr. Obama has delivered, however, is “Change we may not really see.” He has embraced indefinite detention and the use of military commissions, failed to roll back the civil rights abuses that were enshrined in the Patriot Act, and still fails to investigate those in prior Administrations who committed torture openly, in violation of U.S. Federal law.

    Thus, that he won the Nobel Prize is a mixed blessing at best. Certainly he CAN think about things in new ways, and his environmental record clearly shows that he’s not impressed or intimidated by those who would run the Earth to death by keeping the status quo.

    But that record is not enough to transcend his other failures, and his failings to heed the warnings of history and leave Afghanistan show it. For most voters, Change We Could Believe in meant ending Iraq and Afghanistan, not running them up. It meant closing torture prisons and black sites.

    Those things have not been accomplished, and so while Mr. Obama is a war time President, he is that way because he CHOOSES to be. We elected him to be someone else. Let’s not give him a fress pass.

    1. I’ll push on some of those. Obama never campaigned on investigating torture; he is, however, in the process of ending indefinite detention, except for battlefield sites, which are very very different animals. And I thought the black sites were closed…

  2. As for the PATRIOT ACT, Congress has taken the initiative:

    I would be shocked if Obama didn’t sign it once it gets to his desk.

  3. Well, maybe Obama is good enough for you to hype him up; if I were a US citizen, I would be very disappointed, just like the Schröder chancellorship busted my naive expectations of substantial changes in my country.

    What I find really disappointing now is, however, your position towards the Afghanistan war, although I have already addressed that a few posts down. Again:

    1. Have you been attacked by the army of Afghanistan?

    2. Have your allies been attacked by the army of Afghanistan and requested you to honor your alliance?

    3. Has the legitimate government of Afghanistan invoked an alliance with you by requesting your help in suppressing an insurrection funded by an external power?

    If you have to answer no to all three questions, and you do, then why is your military occupying Afghanistan? Sorry to be so caustic, but I thought that the difference between a legitimate war and just doing what you want because you are the biggest bully on the block should have come up sometime during your law studies. This looks a bit as if you consider something right just because it is your guy doing it, no matter the facts.

    And yes, the same goes for my own government which is so happy that German soldiers are finally allowed to blow things up again that they do not care where they do it and whether it makes any sense, so we are in the same boat. And yes, bonus points for realizing that item three above means that I consider the Soviet intervention to have had more legitimacy than what is happening now, quite apart from the fact that the country would still have a civilized and secular government if they had won.

    1. I thought Al-Queda and the Taliban considered themselves the legitimate government of Afghanistan. I also thought that Karzi represented the current legitimate government of Afghanistan, and that the Taliban was at least partially funded by residents of Saudi Arabia.

      I guess I answer “yes” to #1 and #3.

      1. Don’t know if you will still read this reply after all that time in which I did not see it, but here is my take:

        Al Kaida (or however it is written in English) was never part of the government of Afghanistan, at the most it was more like those pigs bay invaders and saboteurs being sheltered and covertly supported by the US government of the early 60ies – does not make them part of the US government. And I do not know if Al Kaida even got any actual logistic support from the Taliban apart from not being thrown out of the country.

        Now for the legitimate government of a country, that is always tricky. It’s usually the bunch of criminals that is currently recognized as such by the majority of other countries. If we go by that, the current government is legitimate, but it was installed after the Taliban were driven out, so it cannot have called the coalition for help. I’d say the last legitimate government was the one that called the USSR for help to defeat the fundamentalist uprising that ended, thanks in no small part to US support in addition to the Saudi one, in the rise to power of the Taliban.

  4. There’s a real danger that Afghanistan will slide back into Taliban hands. If that actually happens again, we’re faced with the prospect of another state sponsor of terrorism, one that’s already shown a capability of striking the U.S. This isn’t an option, and it isn’t a nebulous possibility like Iraq.

  5. Ames,
    Given that published media reports have claimed for several months tha t the Talaban controls 80% of Afghanistan, how much more sliding back do we need to see?

    1. Isn’t that the point though? They’ve regained control of 80% of Afghanistan, and the only way to keep them from getting 100% control is to kill them all and take than 80% back from their corpses?

  6. Yes. Steve’s got it here. If it’s salvageable, it must be salvaged.

    1. Why? To satiate our collective bruised egos? Al Qaeda operates in many countries, and so will move from Afghanistan and Pakistan if they were to become unwelcoming. “defeating” a force that has tactical if not strategic control of a country for that nebulus reason – to salvage something – and then prop up a governemtn that is known and openly corrupt doesn’t really chaneg anything for Afghanis does it?

      Come on Ames – keep this up and we’ll revoke your liberal card!

  7. Ames:

    “That isn’t an option” is not quite the same as “that is why it is a just war”. I mean, one of the greatest worldwide state sponsors of terrorism in the last ca. 60 years was the US government, from Central America to the Taliban themselves, but does that mean that a just reaction from the rest of the world (hypothetically, if they had the power) would have been to invade, kill hundreds of thousands of innocent American civilians and install a despised puppet regime? Apart from that, I have not yet seen anybody argue that the Taliban government was actually a state sponsor, i.e. behind the 9/11 attacks – they merely tolerated the presence of the terrorists in their country.

    “If it is salvageable” – and that is the other big question. I’d say it is well beyond the point of being salvageable. And this is one of the reasons.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to see the Taliban finished. I’d also love to see Saudi Arabia and Iran to have rational, secular, non-terrorist-funding and democratic governments. But that does not mean that it is moral to invade them for that reason, nor that invading them would increase my chances of getting this wish fulfilled.

  8. Phil, I’m willing to risk my liberal card on this issue, actually :), because I think it’s important we’re not seen as anti-all wars.

    Both —

    My understanding, and the popular one as well, is that the Taliban was more than a passive supporter. They encouraged Bin laden’s presence, and far from just sort of tolerating him, took up arms to save their own hides, and his, when the U.S. invaded.

    I agree that regime change for its own sake isn’t a sustainable foreign policy. That’s why I opposed Iraq — yes, we’d all love to see Saddam dead, and the world’s better off for that, but the U.S. can’t bankroll every failed state — but Afghanistan is different. They’re a failed state that, in their failure, have drifted to sanctioning terrorism and allowing their land to be used to that end. That’s not something we can condone, and even if it is costly, it’s worth showing that that kind of behavior isn’t to be tolerated.

    And — you’re not going to like this ONE BIT — I honestly buy the “pulling out emboldens our enemies” argument, as to Afghanistan (not as to Iraq). We can’t give the impression that we’ll back out of wars like this — it’s bad going forward, and would be a major victory for Islamic fundamentalism. They came to this fight expecting to die gloriously (but hopelessly) in battle: if all of a sudden it looks like their cause isn’t so hopeless, things get worse.

    1. The counterpart to “pulling out emboldens our enemies” is that staying in 1) provides more context for terrorist recruiting because we can be cast as an occupier just as the Soviets were and 2) Bin Laden’s stated aim was to bring the U.S. to its knees by both terrorist campaigns, and by dragging us into a bogged down war. Afterall, its how he believes he beat the Soviet Union. Sadly, I think that he’s accomplished both, especially as long as Presidnet Obama continues to ignore the civil liberties abuses of his predecessor. afterall, if the British can have an open and publc inquirey, surely we can as well.

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