Obama’s War Policy

Lamenting the outcome of the war in Iraq which he had initially supported, a friend commented on former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s remark in his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House, that the Iraq invasion had been a serious strategic blunder. My friend asked in rhetorical fashion, what could possibly be worse from a national security standpoint than for a war to go unexpectedly sour after such a promising beginning? I innocently replied, probably starting one that never should have been waged to begin with. As if I had not made a startling revelation–which I had not–he added, sure, but how can we tell when it is justified to go to war?

This question has no clear-cut answer but various ones depending on specific circumstances. But with regard to the invasion of Iraq, I think we can assert that the most significant intangible element that makes this question so seemingly easy to address is that the American people, the Congress, and the media overwhelmingly supported this war.

It is interesting that, while we continue to support the war in Afghanistan even though it is not going all that well, we have expressed strong disapproval, even revulsion, toward our involvement in Iraq. Is it that we have made a late-coming moral distinction between the two? On what basis, and relying on what criteria?

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether our moral compass does or does not need realignment, given its destructive capability, questions about war always should require a moral answer. After all, we call ourselves a moral nation and we remind the world that we behave morally.

It is one of McClellan’s other remarks, however, that brings out the moral element to the forefront of the war in Iraq. Clearly questioning the justification for the war now, he concludes that, war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.

Not that McClellan brought forth any wisdom to the discussion. After all, how do we determine when is it necessary to wage war? The term necessary may include various motives, good and bad ones according to different definitions of what the national interest should be, including some having noble yet imperialistic and messianic designs.

Certainly, the fact that the war in Iraq has not gone as well as the Bush administration had expected should have no bearing on whether or not the war was necessary. That would be as absurd as when the Bush Administration argued that the initial invasion was justified based on how easily US troops defeated the Iraqi army. Losing a war does not change its initial moral justification any more than winning should justify an immoral military venture.

As the war in Iraq goes on with no clear end in sight, the timing is ripe to discuss under what circumstances and on account of which reasons and motives should wars be fought at all. For example, given that we are having second thoughts about the invasion of Iraq, we may want to ask ourselves if something similar could happen again. Are there new deterrents today that were absent in 2003 that could prevent other strategic blunders? Lastly, how would the president intends to manage conflict and how would his views affect US policy?

We know that presidents as Commanders in Chief of the Armed Forces have constitutional powers that allow them to conduct war. And, while they technically require congressional approval, sometimes presidents have successfully managed to evade such consent.

Despite these powers, given the American people’s dislike for wars, presidents seek—and need–public support to start and/or to continue military ventures. Such unwritten constitutional limitations on presidents means that, when it comes to waging a war, the American people have extraordinary political power over their Commanders in Chief, should they decide to exercise it. We may then conclude that the United States fights wars because the American people either support or condone them; and that we are the ultimate and only emergency brake inside the military vehicle.

Still, how would the American people go about deciding whether to grant approval to a specific military venture? Today, as some groups seek ways to rein in the executive’s ability to run over an incapable Congress on the use of the military, it becomes apparent that the American people (as well as both institutions) are in need of relatively specific and clear moral criteria–an ethos—that could guide presidents and Congress in their decisions to conduct war.

I discussed at length what traditionally constitutes criteria for a Just War in chapters 11, 12, and part of chapter 14 of my book that appears in this website. These criteria are readily consistent with various religious views as well as with secular and atheistic ethics.

At its core, the essence of the Just War criteria lies in the value, the significance, of innocent human life and the proposition that no one innocent human life is more or less important than others. Ironically, it is precisely because of the moral strength of this proposition that war sometimes need to be fought–to defend innocent human life.

The Just War criteria presumes the existence of evil in human nature and the possibility that bad people would want to do bad things to innocent beings, something that could require a morally justifiable act of self-defense. This viewpoint has an inevitably moral political dimension: the need to safeguard the national security of the state which means that, at times, the state may have to wage war to protect the safety of its citizens and their way of life.

The Just War criteria also serve to prevent well-intentioned leaders from committing serious strategic blunders by distinguishing between morally justifiable action, such as a Defensive War (a war fought following an attack against our land and our people or in defense of an innocent nation being attacked by an outside enemy or slaughtered by its own leaders), and its corollary, a Preemptive War (according to the Pentagon, military action that is initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent), and what is now universally condemned as a political, legal, and morally irresponsible course of action, a Preventive War (one that is initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable).

Preventive Wars are gambles political leaders take to eliminate potential threats that may or may not materialize. These gambles are typically the result of unexamined fear, insecurity, domestic political calculations, inadequate intelligence, shallow policy analysis, misguided moral principles, absence of morally-based national security policies, and failure by social and political institutions to question war policies. McClellan’s remarks about the war in Iraq point out the presence of these deficiencies among political, military, and social leaders, including McClellan himself.

Relying on Preventive Wars as an instrument of foreign policy voids an essential aspect of a legal and moral code that has taken centuries to root into the international mind and which has been used by the United States itself to condemn other states. Such reliance removes an important element that differentiates between rogue and law-abiding states, thereby eliminating the proverbial high road that so often we claim to take. By sanctioning this instrument of policy we tacitly give the green light to other states to follow suit. Under such unstable conditions, what could prevent misguided or unjustified wars from happening?

Nationwide moral justification made possible military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as well as the invasion of Iraq. But while such justification has not been largely questioned in the Afghan case, it has practically eroded in Iraq. If the American people had not extended their support to the war in Iraq, it is likely that the Bush administration’s intention to invade Iraq would not have materialized. Somehow, we were not able to distinguish between the two military events.

Quite possibly, the American people have not yet realized that the Iraqi invasion was a Preventive, not a Preemptive, war. It was presented as preemptive because of ineptitude within the political leadership or on account of deception; however, when evaluated against its criteria, the Iraqi invasion meets the elements of a Preventive War. Such distinction is crucial. Possibly, Scott McClellan might have had these differences belatedly in mind when he wrote that, wars should only be waged when necessary.

Are there deterrents in place today that would prevent other similar strategic blunders? Hardly. There is no denying that our political leaders on both sides of the aisle care deeply about the security of the American people; and neither group are appeasers, if by this we mean the surrender of our strategic interests for the overall sake of avoiding war.

The problem is that politicians seek to safeguard the nation’s interests while under extraordinary self-imposed pressure to be elected or re-elected into office. And in the absence of ethos and principles dictating that war should only be approached as a last resort and in a defensive manner, it is likely that once  fear and insecurity show their faces our leaders might not be able to prudently handle an upcoming threat.

Politicians’ desire to get elected into high office quite often makes them do and say awkward things in order to cater to those whose votes they badly want to get. They know that in a dangerous world voters want to be reassured that their lives, and their way of life, will be protected above anything else; that they will not lack oil; that there will not be another 9/11; that their children will have grandchildren. Politicians need to reassure voters that no possible international threat will impinge into their happiness.

On the other hand, in their eagerness to reassure voters, one may want to question the extent to which our political leaders are sensitive to how their electoral rhetoric shapes the domestic public’s expectations as well as foreign leaders’ perceptions of US behavior. Are they aware that their positions unnecessarily might constrain their choices once they are elected that in turn may inhibit them from considering more diplomatic alternatives that could reduce self-induced conflicts that result in war or political instability?

Meanwhile, the American voter faces a dilemma–not unlike other peoples worldwide—that leads politicians to an electorally safe position. We tend to be peacefully oriented; but while we dislike war, we will not shy away from resorting to military action when our interests—and above all, our security and that of our allies—are threatened. There is another dimension to this dilemma, one that, again, is shared by other cultures: we call ourselves the land of the brave. A consequence of this attribution is that we detest being perceived as cowards.

This means that in the political arena, on issues pertaining to the national security, we want to be seen–understandably so–as forceful and assertive not weak or delicate. So while the security of the nation should always trump other considerations that are less vital than life itself, given how we feel about our interests and about ourselves, political rhetoric will tend to magnify existing threats or even create new ones regardless of their credibility. Having to choose between being a warmonger or an appeaser becomes an easy choice. Ignoring the possibility of various other attitudes, politicians likely will end up choosing to act like a Wild West’s Wyatt Earp over TV’s Mr. Rogers.

The above dilemma, however, encloses a bit of a problem: an aggressive stance in foreign policy begins to show its face as our collective fears become public. These are fears we sense individually as well as those that are instilled into us by our politicians portraying themselves as our protectors.

The outcome of this dilemma, I think, has propelled us into accepting, almost by default, subconsciously perhaps, the primacy of a Preventive War mentality in our foreign policy.

This frame of mind is clearly observed in the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. He not only endorsed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he did so while sharing Bush’s preventive view of the world as well as most of the superficial assumptions that were generated by poorly analyzed intelligence that went largely unquestioned by a congressional majority. McCain became critical of the war in Iraq once it was revealed that the US had committed major intelligence and militarily logistical blunders, following increases in casualties, and after it became publicly obvious that the war was not going to end according to Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s original timetable.

Thus, Senator McCain’s credibility as a critic of the war lies only in that his criticism was voiced as a Republican against his own party’s leader. Most of Senator McCain’s statements regarding potential threats in Iran, Pakistan, or North Korea, Muslim and Arab radicalism, international terrorism, or his views concerning other areas such as Cuba and Venezuela, or even his comments on Russia’s political project and Vladimir Putin, were characterized by a Preventive War mentality that is devoid of any serious analysis and historical perspective. In addition, his Iraq war-ending strategy was primarily a blank check on President Bush’s stay the course military solution, without taking into account other more positive diplomatic and political objectives in the region.

Regarding the invasion of Iraq, as a senator, Barack Obama had a completely different viewpoint; he opposed it prior to its beginning. Although he did not voice his criticism in 2002 in terms of waging a Preventive War, Obama outlined certain criteria—some in moral terms–that otherwise could have justified the invasion. He regarded Iraq as a war of choice; one that he did not deem necessary under the circumstances at the time, describing the invasion as a rash war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Nonetheless, along with many who today oppose the Iraq invasion, as president, Obama initially was bent on the assumption that to right a wrong one simply needed to do the complete opposite of the initial wrongful action. If the invasion was morally or politically irresponsible, he assumed that an immediate timetabled withdrawal would be the appropriate choice of policy. Despite his continuous refinements to his view, implementation of this policy fails to take into account our own moral responsibility to repair the damage we brought upon the Iraqi people as well as to ward off potential negative outcomes of our withdrawal in the region and to the security of our allies and our people. In other words, we have to worry that an untimely, non-strategically oriented retreat (both retreat and withdrawal are synonyms), can be as morally and politically reckless as initiating a war based on passion instead of reason.

To his credit, Obama seems to believe, more than McCain did, that war is a last recourse after considerable diplomatic efforts have failed. And yet, his political rhetoric, thus, his policy room to maneuver, was somewhat hampered by his political need to be elected.

Recalling his flag pin backpedaling, Obama found it initially difficult to articulate a morally coherent national security strategy because his Republican counterpart, compelled also to cater to the electorate’s fears and insecurities and his desire not to be perceived as coward, kept reminding him that a good president must sound and appear confrontational and intimidating.

Addressing situations in Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and also in relation to Israel’s enemies, Obama found himself walking on a political tightrope, carefully crafting an image of an assertive warrior in order to avoid being perceived as an appeaser.

Induced by a mixture of electoral politics, our insecurities, and our self-perception, our current war ethos call on relying on the so-called Cowboy diplomacy, the current version of the old Gunboat diplomacy that depends on the use or threat of military force as a primary means to attain our objectives abroad.

The political necessity to pay homage to the electorate’s Preventive mentality has eroded elements of traditional diplomacy, by this meaning the skills that political leaders require to conduct their relations without arousing hostility. As a result, both McCain and Obama were relying on a Preventive approach to diplomacy, thus creating or exacerbating existing fears and threats, without realizing that the warmonger is just as dangerous to peace and security as the appeaser.

Despite that we are a militarily and economically powerful nation, we seem to need to speak down to other nations and their leaders. We are not aware that, at the other end, our tone often is perceived as being paternalistic and arrogant and reminiscent of imperialistic policies. We speak publicly in terms of regime change; we tend not to ask or persuade others but to demand; we threaten others with sanctions if they fail to behave the way we ask them and offer them rewards if they do.  

Our relationship with our enemies or with those who disagree with our policies exhibits traits of the father-son, teacher-pupil, boss-worker, master-servant types. Somehow, we are not sensitive to the fact that peoples and their leaders worldwide take offense to such rhetoric even though it plays well in the eyes of the American electorate. We may not even notice that many of the leaders with whom we currently have conflict resent this rhetoric and that their defiant behavior–and policies–can be a reaction to our condescending attitude. As leaders, they seek to protect their images and oppose us in order not to appear before their people and the rest of the world as caving in to our demands.

To his credit, and feeling more confident after having been elected president, Obama seems to be projecting a more diplomatic behavior than Bush ever did, to the point where he is arousing anguish and disbelief on the part of those who belittle this approach. While not a dove, he is posed to rely more on traditional diplomacy as a means to solve conflicts. United States’ poorly examined insecurities could, however, at any time overblow the magnitude of existing threats. Unless fully aware of this tendency, these threats could lead Obama to employ a more confrontational rhetoric to avoid being perceived as weak and inexperienced. Such rhethoric could lead him to stray away from the diplomatic path. For, diplomacy is like walking on a tight rope but without the pole and, unfortunately, keeping one’s balance is never assured.

Today, there is nothing on the horizon that guarantees that our next military venture might not be a repetition of the Iraq blunder. Part of the problem lies in the dynamics of how to deal with enemies assertively and confidently without projecting the image of—or being—an appeaser. As powerful as we are, we have not mastered this technique. As a nation, we believe that the threat or use of military power is the only way to project respect. We confuse bravado with bravery, seemingly unaware that bravado suggests being foolhardy, while bravery is a distant cousin of the term barbarous, which means uncivilized and wild. In between there lie the terms courage, mettle, resolve, attitudes that project self-assurance without discarding the possibility of having to wage a Just War in self-defense or in the defense of others.

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com