The American Way of War: The Dismal "War on Terror" from Bush to Obama
A year and a half into the presidency of Barack Obama, any hopes that
he would usher in a dramatic rethinking of U.S. foreign policy have
been more or less definitively dashed.
Notwithstanding the wild-eyed warnings of right-wing hawks who see
Obama as "the first post-American president", with a covert agenda that
is part Saul Alinsky and part Frantz Fanon, the president has so far
proven himself to be have little inclination to break with the past
when it comes to foreign policy.
If the George W. Bush
administration introduced the U.S. public to names like Guantanamo,
Fallujah, and Blackwater, it is in the Obama administration that
counterparts like Bagram, Waziristan and Predator have become
To be sure, this does not mean, as some disillusioned
Obama supporters have suggested, that Obama is "no different" from
Bush - particularly if it is the assertive and unchastened Bush of the
first term that they have in mind - or from the likely alternatives.
Obama's diplomacy with Iran, for instance, has been largely uninspired
- witness the great amount of energy devoted to passing sanctions that
are simultaneously provocative and toothless - his administration has
by all indications been working actively to avoid an outright war.
This is more than one could say about the likely course under a
President McCain or Palin.
Similarly, Obama has thus far caved in
his confrontations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but
he has at the very least demonstrated an awareness that Bush-style
blank-cheque support for Israel is untenable - as opposed to his
Republican opponents, many of whom seem to fully endorse the Greater
Israel ideology of the Israeli settler movement.
But if Obama has
refrained from the most egregious excesses of his predecessor, he has
nonetheless remained solidly within the mainstream of what Andrew
Bacevich has termed the U.S. "ideology of national security" that has
reigned since World War II. Whether this sort of caution has been the
result of heartfelt belief or political constraints is largely beside
The real question, however, is: should anyone be
surprised? Was there any cause to believe that an Obama presidency
would signal a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, or did Obama's
progressive supporters simply pin hopes upon the candidate that were
unjustified by the evidence?
On some issues, like detainee
policy, President Obama has certainly backpedaled on Candidate Obama's
promises, but on many others - most notably the escalation of the war
in Afghanistan - he has simply followed through on his stated
In "The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became
Obama's" (Haymarket Books, 2010), Tom Engelhardt provides a clear- eyed
examination of U.S. foreign policy in the Bush and Obama years, and
details unsparingly how Obama has inherited - and in many cases
exacerbated - the ills of the Bush era.
While Engelhardt does not
address explicitly the question of whether things had to be this way,
he refuses throughout to fall into the satisfying simplifications of
personalised analysis - to contrast Obama the Crusader riding into
Washington to change everything with Obama the Cynic sacrificing
principle for political expediency.
In doing so, he forces the
reader to confront the likelihood that the forces that have made U.S.
foreign policy what it is run far deeper than mere personalities, and
conversely that changing the U.S.'s stance in the world will require
far more than simply voting the "good guys" into power.
is best known as the man behind TomDispatch.com, the site that since
the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks has hosted some of the most trenchant
criticism of U.S. foreign policy by analysts ranging from Bacevich on
the right to Noam Chomsky on the left. His book collects some of his
own essays written for TomDispatch from 2004 to 2010.
striking feature of the book is how seamlessly it flows, despite the
fact that some of its contents were written in the first Bush term
while others were written only a few months ago. This, in itself, is
one indication of how little has changed.
book, "The End of Victory Culture", was a perceptive analysis of the
ways that U.S. pop culture shaped the triumphalist narrative of the
Cold War; here, too, he is especially good at demonstrating the ways
that culture and the mass media influence what might ordinarily be
considered the realms of high politics.
The first chapter
examines how the Sep. 11 attacks have shaped the political landscape
for the past decade in ways both obvious and subtle, but also the ways
in which the attacks themselves found particular resonance with a
population that had long been psychologically preparing for the
apocalypse in film.
How different, Engelhardt asks, would the
course of history have been if neither World Trade Centre tower had
fallen in the attacks? Without the cinematic horror of the towers
falling, perhaps politicians would have felt less need to respond with a
full-blown "global war on terror".
Or perhaps the public thirst
for revenge would have been slaked with the toppling of the Taliban,
and the U.S. would not have proceeded to Iraq out of a perceived need
to "go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something" in
response (as Thomas Friedman put it).
Later chapters examine the
progressive "garrisoning" of the earth as the archipelago of U.S. bases
spreads across the globe, the ways that the antiseptic and allegedly
"surgical" nature of air power has moved the carnage of war out of the
sight and minds of the U.S. public, and the mangling of media language
used to disguise the nature of the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and
The observation that one man's terrorist is
another's freedom fighter is by now a familiar one, but Engelhardt
marshals an impressive amount of evidence to reveal just how far the
twisting of language has gone.
The pieces on air power and the
drone war are particularly good. One extended analysis of a single
August 2008 incident in Azizabad, Afghanistan illustrates how a
compliant media has conspired with the military to discredit and
downplay reports of civilian casualties.
claiming that 30 "Taliban militants" had been killed in the incident
after attacking coalition forces, the military was ultimately forced -
following weeks of stonewalling and gradual backpedaling - to give
credence to reports that the real death toll consisted of 90
civilians, including 60 children.)
And for all the talk of the
"lessons learned" from Vietnam, Engelhardt expertly details how many of
the features of the U.S.'s current wars - from the debates over body
counts to the faddish embrace of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine as
universal panacea - are throwbacks to the Vietnam era.
American Way of War" is, all in all, a very depressing read. But for
that very reason, it is an important book for anyone hoping to
understand how the U.S. arrived at its current predicament during the
Bush years, and how it remains in this predicament despite Obama's best
efforts - or perhaps because of them.