Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our War President

Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations at Boston University and prominent critic of American war policy, has a weird take on Obama's Presidency.  He gives him credit for wanting to do the right thing, but then acknowledges that he just can't bring himself to do it.  Then he admits that Obama won't get his vote next time (join the club).
To my mind, Obama's speech once again showed that he does not really wish to be a "war president." He understands—correctly—that the imperative of the moment is not to rebuild Afghanistan, but to rebuild America. He knows that the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will not determine the course of events in the 21st century. What happens in China or India, Europe or Russia is of far greater importance to our well-being. So there is something fundamentally absurd about a cash-strapped nation spending more than $100 billion per year in hopes of pacifying a country that lacks a legitimate government and that views Americans as unwelcome infidels.

Yet for whatever reason—politics? an unwillingness to overrule his generals?—Obama prefers to temporize rather than to make the tough call. So with his announcement of a barely more than symbolic plan for withdrawal, he allows a mindless war to continue. The presidential election of 2012 will reveal whether his calculation is a correct one. This time around, he won't have my vote.
In the case of Afghanistan et al, I actually think that Obama loves being a war president.  His model, as has been frequently pointed out, is Abraham Lincoln, who was American's greatest war president.  His heart is definitely in it (but he's afraid that the American people aren't). 

I've become to believe, again based not on his words but on his actions, that Obama prefers to deal with foreign policy rather than domestic issues.  Whereas Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with the Vietnam War, even picking the bombing targets, he didn't neglect domestic issues, serving up huge programs like the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Medicare.  I get the feeling with Obama, however, that he really doesn't care all that much, despite his speeches, for the nitty-gritty of domestic policy.  He's glad to leave all that stuff to his neo-liberal subordinates to work out, if they can.  He's not going to waste his leadership chits on those things when he can be the great world leader.  That's why he takes so much time and effort with his Afghan (Pakistan, Libyan, Yemeni, etc.) war strategy, huddling with his generals and staff to go over all the options, like some Churchill in his WWII bunker in London.  I would imagine that he knows (though doesn't necessarily clear) the details of every drone strike that he authorizes, and he's authorized many!

Obama is clearly a disciple of Reinhold Niebuhr, and I imagine that he discovered his favorite theologian when he was studying at Columbia University.  After all, Niebuhr taught moral ethics across the street at Union Theological Seminary 40 years earlier and was the most influential ethicist of his time with regard to the Cold War foreign policy.  I first noticed this when Obama--in his unscripted answers--quoted Niebuhr back in 2008 during the campaign when he took part in that discussion in Rick Warren's church, and that impressed me.  And then, again, in his Peace Prize Speech, he quoted Niebuhr more than anyone else.

As a amateur theologian myself (and pastor), I've actually studied Niebuhr quite a bit over the years and considered myself a Niebuhrian for a while (and still do some), especially during my neo-conservative years in the 80s.  What I've come to see is that, paradoxically, Niebuhr's writings gives someone of Obama's intellect the moral worldview to bless war, in all its folly, and pursue it with great vigor.  The Nieburhian trick is that you always do it with protestations of humility, a great deal of hand-wringing, and of course the expression of  your great desire for world peace and reconciliation, though that's always down at the end of the road somewhere, out of sight.

It is no accident that the hawkish Christian neo-conservatives of the last 30 years--people like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus--have all considered themselves disciples of Niebuhr too.  And Novak, for example, was very happy to work at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the heart of the neo-con beast, and bless its work with an outpouring of God-talk.

Of course, Reinhold Nieburh would have been somewhat uncomfortable with the way that Obama ends his speeches: "May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America."   But, that's politics, you know.  Gotta do what you gotta do.

Ps.  One more thing.  I'm coming to believe that our most aggressive and hawkish national leaders tend to be those who did not serve in the military (aka 'chickenhawks).  On the other hand, war heroes like Dwight Eisenhower, JFK, and George Bush Sr. were a little more careful about matters of war, having seen it up close and personal. 

Maybe we should draft Colin Powell to be President.  At this point, I'd definitely be in favor of that!

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