A good Commander-in-Chief, his smart wars and their unworthy victims.
In early October of 2002, Barack Obama — then a state senator representing Illinois’ 13th District — took the stage to address a crowd of roughly 3,000 people gathered at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago. The purpose of the mass assembly was to express opposition to the Iraq Resolution, newly introduced in Congress to authorize military action undertaken by the United States and its allies against their former regional ally in the Middle East led by dictator Saddam Hussein. Though the authorization would pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate and be signed into law by George W. Bush a few days later, demonstrations against the Resolution would last for months. In mid-February, a few weeks before the beginning of the allied invasion in spring of 2003, two million people around the world participated in the largest mass demonstration in recorded history (until the 2017 Women’s March) in opposition to the impending conflict.
Despite months of popular opposition — and despite operating in clear violation of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 — the bombs began dropping over Baghdad on March 20th. Nearly fifteen years later, the conflict triggered by the Bush Administration continues to rage and mutate into new atrocities across international boundaries.
For the aspirational legislator representing the South Side of Chicago, the rally in October 2002 represented the first in a series of stunning moments of oratory, catapulting the relatively young Barack Obama to the United States Senate in 2006 and the Oval Office in 2008. Perhaps just as impressive, Obama inaugurated his national image campaign with the sort of ideological trick a Harvard-trained lawyer would be especially capable in pulling off.
In the midst of an anti-war rally, the future President of the United States opened his speech by justifying war.
The transcript of the October 2002 speech — available online via National Public Radio— is a masterclass in political auditioning. Within a few sentences, Barack Obama reminds his audience of the necessity of the Civil War to end legal slavery in the United States (though abolition was not a policy focus of the Union until 1863) and the necessity of World War Two to liberate Europe from fascism and genocide (though the Allied Forces declined to bomb Auschwitz despite receiving intelligence of the infamous Holocaust camp’s location in 1944). There is, State Senator Obama argues, a clear moral inevitability that permitted certain episodes of industrial murder. But despite the brutal obscenity of Saddam Hussein’s regime, armed conflict would represent an extraordinary mistake— mostly because it reflected poor strategic thinking. It would be, as the state senator put it, a “dumb war.”
Simultaneously, Barack Obama argues the goodness of some wars on the basis of moral outcome, and the badness of other wars on the basis of poor planning. As a window into the future President’s values, this speech opens up a few uncomfortable thought experiments: did strategic blunders by the Union in the Civil War diminish the necessity of ending slavery? Did tactical errors by the Allies in World War Two negate the evil of the Axis Powers? And if the Iraq War could be prosecuted in a manner that is ultimately successful, could its moral context then be reversed?
Despite being a dumb war, could the Iraq War be a good war?
In his own address, also in early October of 2002, President George W. Bush minimizes the role of strategy in the decision to invade Iraq. He appeals directly to a feeling of moral duty, evoking the same sentiment of advancing the cause of freedom the state senator from Illinois used to explain why he was not opposed to war in all circumstances. For Obama’s immediate predecessor in the White House, the Iraq War had to be a good war, because its cause was to protect America and emancipate the Iraqi people.
In other words, George W. Bush presented a more ideologically coherent argument for the Iraq War than Barack Obama’s argument against it. Grounded in more or less the same principles — freedom, security, the nobility of the American character— both men justified how certain brutal historic causes were more or less meant to happen, and reached opposite conclusions for why Iraq would or would not belong in this tradition.
Neither argument makes much sense.
The difference between the Bush rationale and the Obama rationale is that while the former had no pretense of dispassionate reasoning, the latter staked his identity in his analytic opposition. Presumably, candidate Obama would continue to support wars, but only if they were fought intelligently. And presumably, the wars he would fight as President would reflect intelligent values. Perhaps, like the Civil War and World War Two, even values of moral good.
In October of 2009, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been President — a moral and intelligent warmaker — for less than 9 months.
The 36-minute Nobel Lecture President Obama gave in Oslo two months later reflects an evolution of his vision about war presented in his 2002 speech in Chicago. Again, he cites both the folly and necessity of armed conflict, based on historic circumstance and the honoring of moral duty. He speaks to the limits of human reason; he dissects the tragic necessity of “just war;” he accepts that, as the wartime Commander-in-Chief of the United States, he cannot embrace the pacifism of past Peace Laureates, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Above all, President Obama asserts that America’s role as the world’s sole military superpower is to provide security for the creation of a better world. Since World War Two, America’s legacy demonstrates that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace” and that “neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.”
Here is the same moral framework expressed in George W. Bush’s plan to bring democracy to Iraq via Tomahawk cruise missiles.
In the last month of President Obama’s tenure as Commander-in-Chief, The Guardian published a retrospective on Obama’s moral and intelligent warmaking. In his final year in office, the Obama Administration executed airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In 2016 alone, American Special Operators were maneuvering across 138 countries — 70% of the world’s nation-states. Compared to George W. Bush’s two terms, Obama authorized more than ten times the amount of drone strikes. And, as The Guardian report’s headline puts it: “America dropped 26,171 bombs in 2016.” Based on the Department of Defense’s own data, this amounts to 72 bombs dropped every day, including in areas with civilian populations, or approximately 3 bombs per hour.
Then there is the other legacy of Obama’s moral and intelligent warmaking: the Disposition Matrix. Known more crudely (and accurately) as the “kill list,” the Disposition Matrix was introduced in 2010 as an elegant consolidation of assassination targets compiled by various American intelligence agencies. By cross-referencing the profiles of “unlawful combatants,” the Matrix provides a database of the most useful candidates for liquidation, largely through the use of Hellfire missiles fired by remote-controlled aircraft.
In 2013, a leaked Justice Department memo outlined how the Obama Administration rationalized their legal authority to assassinate U.S. citizenswithout due process in a court of law. There was no apparent geopolitical limit to where the Obama Administration felt it had authority to prosecute its moral and intelligent warmaking.
In effect, the Disposition Matrix is the culmination of objective planning, efficient and data-oriented, with minimized risk for airstrike operators in remote bases. Hundreds of identified unlawful combatants have been swept from the global battlefield as a result. In many ways, this is the epitome of smart war.
Waged in the service of America’s highest ideals, it is also the essence of good war.
But good wars create victims: thousands of civilians killed in drone strikes as “collateral damage;” millions of refugees displaced by collapsing nation-states across the Middle East and North Africa, whose arrival in Europe has accelerated the rise of radical right-wing nationalism from Greece to the United Kingdom. And as of January 2018, one of the most striking outcomes of President Obama’s moral and intelligent warmaking in Libya has been the establishment of open-air slave auctions.
Major media outlets present the survivors of these policies as nameless, far-flung crowds — if they are presented at all. For most mainstream outlets, these are unworthy victims, a term popularized in 1988’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy Of The Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Through a systemic analysis of the “propaganda model,” Herman and Chomsky outline how, mostly through advertising control, the agenda of American elites maintain their grip on the public’s consciousness. Agreeable coverage receives access to the wealthiest revenue streams, and the broadest audience. In terms of war, this creates worthy victims: mostly Americans and Westerners, whose stories attract far more revenue and, therefore, attention. Unworthy victims — families killed in drone strikes, or young men auctioned off in Libyan slave markets — earn less profitable and less in-depth characterization. Their deaths are distant facts, virtually irrelevant to the big picture.
This is objective journalism in America today: journalism that claims to avoid perspective, while also creating context by presenting certain stories as newsworthy or non-newsworthy. In consequence, the American public spends minimal time connecting with the perspectives of those who are brutalized as a result of the interests of the United States.
Perspectives that are not presented cannot be contradicted. Even when marginalizing certain stories, objective journalism can still claim success in its apparent role, because there is no explicit ideological framework. Meanwhile, the President of the United States can claim moral authority because the manner in which he wages war is intelligent, and he has capably served a good cause. If the wars he prosecutes claim to be in the security interest of the United States, they are by definition a moral position. Because this is an American position, it is a worthy position to cover. Objective journalism, therefore, should have no role in contradicting the President’s perspective, unless the facts are incorrect. Facts, when corroborated with empirical evidence, are the essence of objectivity.
But war is not an objective enterprise. War is an exercise of power.🔷
(This piece was first published on Medium.)