Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Obama and His (Virtual) Virtuous War

I expected to be disappointed by President Barack Obama's West Point address. During the campaign he constantly reminded us that this war had been thrust upon us. Like World War II, it would define us.

Unfortunately, even after months of reflection Obama's speech added little more to his case than catchy metaphors and inconsistent analysis, with spick-and-span cadets as props.

Employing the language of foreign policy realism, Obama informed his audience that the Taliban constituted a threat to our national interest. He then promised a carefully delimited military response sufficient to get the job done but cost effective enough not to threaten domestic priorities.

Obama's hard-nosed realism invites careful scrutiny. College international relations texts generally point out that realism in international relations has a distinguished pedigree going back to Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian Wars." No sentimentalist, the Greek historian portrayed a world in which war would play a continuing role. Thucydides, however, conveyed another sensitivity lost to many of today's "realists" and completely absent in Obama's speech. Thucydides highlighted the contingencies in war, the misleading information on which its protagonists depended. His sense of the tragic would challenge Obama's hubristic notion that war could be nicely calibrated in numbers of troop commitment and length of stay.

Obama seems overawed by a Pentagon brass whose rhetoric of war, replete with references to surgical strikes and smart bombs, only furthers such hubris.

Even if realism is to be one's guide, shouldn't dangers and stakes be specified by clear analysis and closely examined factual claims? We are told that Afghanistan was the source of the 9-11 attacks and that it remains the "epicenter" of Islamic extremism. "Epicenter" is a powerful metaphor. Obama conjures up a terrifying vision of an Afghanistan-centered earthquake or tsunami rapidly spreading to engulf the innocent.

Yet 9-11 was carried out mostly by Saudis whose logistical support came primarily from Islamic extremists in Germany. Intelligence agencies throughout the world increasingly believe that al-Qaida itself is a dispersed, loosely knit collection. Hardly the sort of entity where chopping off the head ends the danger. Ironically, Obama himself seems to acknowledge this point, though not its implications for an Afghanistan escalation, with a comment late in his speech about the need for supple and dispersed intelligence.


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If al-Qaida is the source of evil in the world, we should not only encourage cooperative intelligence with other nations, but also strive to understand its motives. As Nir Rosen, fellow at the New York University School of Law and Security, points out, Islamic extremists gain converts not by denouncing our freedoms but rather by highlighting our one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and India and Pakistan's ongoing conflict over Kashmir.

Since intelligence reports also suggest that al-Qaida is now more concentrated in Pakistan than Afghanistan and instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan a much larger regional and world threat, action on these issues is imperative.

A broader look at the U.S. moral posture in the world is just what Obama's rhetoric sidesteps. Near the conclusion of the speech a president who had spoken of our pursuit of hard national interest went on to celebrate the idealism that has purportedly always motivated U.S. foreign policy:

"For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations."

As historian Andrew Bacevich points out, however, this is "the way we prefer to see ourselves and, therefore, the narrative that we use to justify all that we do in the world. It is really telling that this president, whose background is quite different [from prior presidents], would embrace that narrative so uncritically. [T]hat is indicative of the extent to which there is going to be any change in Washington."

Months ago, this president hinted at the limits of our celebratory narrative when he admitted our role in overthrowing Iran's democratic government in the '50s. Nonetheless, the simplistic narrative of good versus evil combined inconsistently with a shallow realpolitik and inordinate confidence in the efficacy of military continues unabated in D.C. That these notions hold such sway over even a president who likely harbors inner doubts about this D.C. consensus is doubly tragic for him and for us.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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