The beginning of the end of perpetual war

Cross-posted on The Obama Diary

Of course it’s not good enough for Scahills, Greenwalds, and Benjamins. Nothing other than a strict policy of non-violence, irrespective of the dangers this country faces, would be good enough. And for the Limbaughs, Hannitys, and O’Reillys, it is nothing less than the affirmation of all their fears: that he’s a Manchurian candidate out to deliver the land of the free to its enemies.

But Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on Thursday heralds nothing less than a total upending of the prevailing US security stance post-9/11.

For the past 12 years, we’ve been, quite frankly, in a perpetual state of war. The one in Afghanistan, it can be quite cogently argued, was a war of self-defense, pursued in pursuit of those who rammed planes into New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. Very few people in this country argued that it wasn’t a war worth waging to extract an enemy who had struck deeply inside our territory.

We know what happened next. We installed a flawed strongman in Hamid Karzai. We gave cursory aid to the new regime, both financially and militarily, allowing Al Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup and carry on the war. And why? Because the neo-con dream of having a nation up in righteous indignation was too good to pass up to pursue its true project, which was to attack Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein, and remake the Middle East into an American satrapy. Gas would be under $2 a gallon forever, oil companies would reap the rewards of lucrative contracts from an Iraqi regime indebted to the US, and the Palestinians would lose their one ally in the region, leaving Israel to range freely. The new American Century would be born on the streets of Baghdad. And Karl Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority would be the fruit of a short, sharp, successful war, fought on the cheap, because the Administration knew that Saddam didn’t have the military capability to hurt his neighbors, much less withstand an invasion by the US.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Yes, Saddam was swept away as sand in a windstorm. His army, started by years of sanctions, had no ability to fight the world’s superpower. But it soon became quite evident that the Baathist regime, with its brutality, was what was keeping Iraq from exploding into an orgy of sectarian violence. Soon after it fell, and as an interim government was formed, Shi’as attacked Sunnis, Sunnis began an insurgency, the Kurds began to return the favor of ethnic cleansing, and though the Kurds were happy enough with the US presence, Iraqi Arabs of all confessions turned their ire at the US. We were caught in the middle of a slow rolling civil war, one which could have been easily forecast, and thousands of American soldiers died or were maimed as a result, along with, of course, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

However, once war gains momentum, it is hard to extricate a nation from it, especially an unnecessary war like Iraq, which fuels more hatred towards the occupier, or a bungled war like Afghanistan, which should have been prosecuted vigorously from the start, and then transitioned to a civilian operation, rebuilding a country used by the major powers as a pawn for 40 years and then thrown away to fester in its own dysfunction once it no longer served a purpose.

Unfortunately, the previous administration had other ideas. It has taken 4 years of Obama methodically dismantling Al Qaeda, and extricating the country from the Iraqi morass, to arrive at his speech Thursday, which marked the beginning of the end of perpetual war.

The Right is apoplectic, as it has invested all its intellectual and emotional currency in this Global War on Terror™. The wars of the oughts were supposed to usher in another era of American dominance. The peace and prosperity of the 1990s didn’t serve its purpose, as the US worked multilaterally with partners to resolve regional conflicts. Ideologically it is wedded to an idea of a rampant superpower, imposing its will upon friend and foe alike. This was summed up succinctly in George W. Bush’s declaration after 9/11, the infamous “You’re either with us or against us.” What Obama has been doing for the past 4 years is winning the war the Right wanted to never end, upsetting its dreams of an American imperium—dreams which were already ash, but which it couldn’t let go of.

And likewise the Left of drones and Guantanamo and Code Pink is also wedded to the idea of a rampant superpower. Of course, it says that it opposes that empire. But it too benefits from that ideological construct. As long as the US is flailing around the world in paroxysms of violence, this segment of the Left can focus on that violence. Once Obama introduces the idea that perpetual war cannot be sustained, the Left has to think about what national defense means, what real dangers the country faces in the world, and how to face those dangers—yes, via soft power if at all possible, but there come times when violent confrontations are unavoidable. Drones in Waziristan are an awful way to pursue Al Qaeda—until you think of the alternatives, which would be a land invasion of Pakistan, or doing nothing and suffering another mass casualty attack on US soil.

The armchair warriors of the Right and the keyboard activists of the Left don’t have children in the military who will be sent into a meat grinder. None of them live with the consequences with which Obama lives. It’s all academic, grist for their polemics, devoid of any solutions for living in a world in constant flux.

What Obama did on Thursday was to draw a clear line under the idea of American empire. Perpetual war is not only unsustainable, but destroys the very values for which it is supposedly fought. Anyone of good conscience should look at that speech, at what the President is proposing, and heave a huge sigh of relief, and support the end of perpetual war. He spoke to the nation as one adult to a commonwealth of adults, which must make adult decisions of the kind of future it wants to leave to its children and grandchildren.

Removing a nation from the swamp of war is not easy. The work will be hard. But for the sake of this country and the world, it must be done. Threats will always exist, and each threat will be faced differently. But the idea that the United States can be eternally at war will simply destroy the very idea of the United States. We have to ensure that Obama doesn’t fail.