Remember when Obama was antiwar?

October 23, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney held the last of their candidates' debates Monday night, and the foreign policy focus provided an opportunity for what the New York Times called a "role reversal." Romney did his best to act like the moderate and responsible world leader, while Obama came off sounding "like a Republican hard-liner," the Times reported. This from the man whose first steps toward the White House in the 2008 election came as the most prominent Democratic contender to oppose George W. Bush's Iraq War.

Danny Katch is the author of the newly released eBook America's Got Democracy! The Making of the World's Longest-Running Reality Show. This article, based on excerpts from the book, looks at Barack Obama's transformation from antiwar to warrior-in-chief.

IT'S NICE to know that deep down Barack Obama is really a peace-loving man. Otherwise his secretive policies of assassinations, covert operations and robot warfare might seem kind of frightening.

Why is it that so many people, including the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, are so sure about Obama's true nature? Because of these three sentences: "I don't oppose all wars. I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

For all his talent and good fortune, the number one reason Barack Obama is president today is that back when he was a state senator he gave that speech at a Chicago protest against the planned invasion of Iraq. Almost as much as the color of his skin, Obama's early speech against the Iraq war made him stand out against supposed favorites like Hillary Clinton, who had voted for it, against the wishes of the vast majority of Democratic voters.

When Obama won the party nomination, voters were so grateful to finally have a candidate to retroactively represent what they'd wanted for six years. Now that we've gotten to know him so much better, the irony is clear: If Barack Obama had any inkling in 2002 that he was so close to the presidency, he never would have risked the speech that ultimately made him president.

Barack and Michelle Obama are greeted by troops during a visit to Fort Stewart
Barack and Michelle Obama are greeted by troops during a visit to Fort Stewart (Sgt. Uriah Walker)

With Obama in the lead, the Democrats in 2008 finally declared themselves against the Iraq war, and millions of people were so happy they didn't even bother to listen to the second part of the sentence: The Democrats declared themselves against the Iraq war so that the troops in Iraq could be sent to Afghanistan.

I must have spoken to dozens of people that fall who either didn't know or outright denied that Obama planned to increase troops in Afghanistan even though he said it at nearly every opportunity. Remember how liberals had a field day making fun of those elderly Tea Partiers who didn't seem to realize that their Medicare was a government program? The truth is the two-party system makes almost all of us dumber.

FOUR YEARS ago, most people thought of Afghanistan as a good war. Democrats painted the occupation of Afghanistan as the Pentagon's noble but neglected older mission; once people started paying it more attention they realized it was just as nasty and hopeless as its younger sibling in Iraq. Those of us who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan from the beginning could pat ourselves on the back, but we're not geniuses.

After September 11, Afghanistan's Taliban government offered to turn over Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders for criminal trial. George Bush rejected that offer and chose instead to overthrow the Taliban and fight an endless unwinnable war to impose a stable government on Afghanistan, all in the name of preventing it from being a lawless place where al-Qaeda could take refuge. This, apparently, was the not-dumb war.

In truth, the United States was never going to accept the Taliban's offer because after 9/11, the country wanted to kick some ass. We couldn't allow such a devastating attack to not be answered with a display of overwhelming revenge and destruction. This is not, it should be noted, an official aspect of international law.

Quentin Tarantino was not one of the authors of the Geneva Conventions and there is no passage of the UN founding charter that allows an aggrieved member state to go medieval on another state's ass. But the United States has always been above the rules that apply to everyone else. We think this works not just for us but for everyone. As Mitt Romney puts it in his book No Apology, "America's economic and military leadership is not only good for America but also critical for freedom and peace across the world."

You can find similar ideas in the speeches of almost any major U.S. leader, Democrat or Republican. Democrats often stress how the United States can work alongside other nations while still being in charge. Republicans like to play up the my-way-or-the-highway thing, as evidenced by the title of Romney's book, which according to most developmental psychologists puts his worldview somewhere at the level of a 5-year-old child.

Coincidentally, this view of America is the same as the way capitalists view themselves--what's good for them is good for everyone because of the way their wealth trickles down to create jobs for the masses. How fortunate it is to be an American boss, whose every self-indulgent act is simultaneously a work of great charity. And how sad for all the non-American bosses and American non-bosses who don't realize that pursuing their own interests is ultimately self-destructive because it hurts those demigods who provide us all with jobs and freedom.

Given this developmentally disabled self-image of U.S. leaders in normal times, it's not surprising that things got pretty crazy after the 9/11 attacks. The White House put out a National Security Strategy that soon became known as the Bush Doctrine, which announced that the nation's goal would be to use preemptive war to keep anybody else from ever having the potential to "equal the power of the United States."

This is not the type of thinking that United States usually admits to having. If you take away all the bureaucratic Pentagon verbiage, it sounds like the kind of speech that ends with evil laughter. But that was the point. Bush and his neocon thinkers were trying to shock and awe the world into submission. It worked in the halls of Congress and the United Nations, but it failed so badly in the streets of Sadr City and Fallujah that the whole strategy was in tatters by the middle of Bush's second term. The United States had certainly intimidated the world, but more in the manner of a wild-eyed gunman than a barrel-chested superhero.

WHEN OBAMA took over, he toned down the rhetoric. Bush's National Security Strategy opened with the boast that "the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence." Obama's, by contrast, opens with a sigh: "We must face the world as it is." No more empty boasts, people. We need some pragmatic plans for holding on to an empire coming apart at the seams.

This bothers Mitt Romney, who accuses Obama of accepting America's decline, which he proudly denies. In contrast, Mitt writes in No Apology that we can renew America's greatness if we are willing to sacrifice the way he did as a kid when his father made him weed the garden even though they could have paid someone else to do it. I shit you not; this is how Mitt opens his book. The first sentence of the book is "I hate to weed" and within five pages a comparison has been made to the need for others to rise to the challenges facing America by risking their lives in combat. I hate to weed. You hate to kill and die. Same diff.

Obama may have abandoned Bush's rhetoric but not his substance. If there is an Obama Doctrine, it's the military version of the Five-Second Rule: If you bomb a country really quickly, it doesn't count. This is a logical development for an administration trying to pursue U.S. domination (excuse me, project U.S. power) in the face of military defeats, economic meltdown, and antiwar sentiment at home and abroad.

The key to the Five-Second Rule Doctrine is to keep everything transient and portable: drone strikes, temporary bases, Special Forces, and local allies, etc. Using these tools, the man who is campaigning on the basis of ending two wars has actually initiated military conflict in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

Last June, Congress complained that Obama's bombing campaign of Libya was violating the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval of any military conflict lasting more than two months. In response, the White House claimed that the bombing of Libya, which at that point had involved about 3,000 air strikes, did not "rise to the level of hostilities."

You know you're a violent country when you don't even consider dropping thousands of bombs to be a hostile act. What should we call it instead, roughhousing? Careful kids before somebody loses an extended family! Libya was a perfect example of the bipartisan solutions Obama promised when he ran four years ago: war and peace simultaneously.

If a Republican were president, liberal pundits would be mocking the claim that the bombing of Libya didn't rise to the level of hostilities. Bookstores would be filled with frenzied titles like AssassiNation and campuses would be plastered with stickers featuring gun sight graphics over the words "Target Approved by the President."

It should disturb supporters of Barack Obama that the war criminals so detested under the Bush administration can, regardless of their motivations, legitimately criticize the Obama administration from the left. Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's clandestine operations under Bush: "We don't capture anybody anymore...I mean, you know, their default option of this administration has been to kill all prisoners, take no prisoners...The drones. How could it be more ethical to kill people rather than capture them? I've never understood that one."

The Two-Party Shuffle now finds itself in such a debased place that the main foreign policy debate is between torture and assassination. I'll leave it up to others to figure out which is the lesser evil.

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