Monday, May 27, 2013

Understanding The Greatness Of Obama's End-To-Perpetual-War Speech

Barack Obama's speech last week calling for an end to perpetual war was, bar done, the greatest given by an American president in my lifetime.

This is because the speech articulated fundamental truths about the times in which we live long overdue in the telling, chief among them that our democracy demands that while we must continue to fight terrorism, the perpetual war the 9/11 attacks unleashed must end.  And this: History shows that while terrorism continues to be ever present in many guises, it is by no means the greatest threat that America has faced, let alone one that justified abrogation of the liberties and principles that are the bedrock of our society.
Republicans predictably took to the fainting couch en masse, because -- let's face it folks -- you either like war or you don't like it, and the ideologues who have bent the Grand Old Party out of any recognizable shape believe there is no higher calling than shedding American blood on foreign soil no matter how flimsy the reasons for doing so may be.  This mindset, in turn, prompted a litany of brickbats aimed at the commander in chief, the most inane of which surely was that he has "a pre-9/11 mindset."

Among those with that mindset was James Madison, whom the president quoted as saying, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."  In other words, wars compromise our values and we eventually become what we hate.  (Thank you, Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.)

Obama defined the scope of the future struggle against terrorism and other global threats in a post-perpetual war America.
This includes repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force mandate, giving the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement the right tools, focusing on more localized threats like Benghazi, and more judicious use of unmanned drones.  Oh, and dear Congressfolk, it's long past time to close Guantánamo Bay, dammit.
Talk, of course, is cheap and Obama has broken promises in the past.  Then there is the matter of those obdurate Republicans, whom he has no hope of engaging.  This means that when it comes to actions like closing Gitmo and transferring the hardest of the remaining hardcore prisoners to escape-proof federal maximum-security prisons, he will have to pretty much go it alone.
In the end, what made the president's speech so great was that it was an appeal to a war-weary nation for a return to normality.  That is to say an America that has a proportional approach to counter-terrorism, like the pre-9/11 responses to the Beirut embassy bombing, Pan American flight 103, and the attacks on American facilities and embassies in Saudi Arabia and East Africa.  In which soft power trumps hard power in all but the most extreme circumstances. 
I am 66 and a veteran. I also am a keen observer of history, and America’s perpetual warmaking has prompted me to reread Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, two of the very best and most honest books about the Vietnam War. The lessons unlearned from that misadventure were much on my mind as Obama spoke.  His perspective, wisdom and candor were deeply refreshing, and all the more so because of my own malaise.
It seems to me that Obama has had a catharsis and was not merely coddling his grumpy liberal base or trying to paper over scandals, as some critics would have it.  Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner was being mindful of his legacy.  In any event, I can imagine a late night conversation with a trusted friend who told him, “Mr. President, it’s time to take it home on this war business."
We may never know, but someone or something got to him and America will be better for it.
Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images


Marc McDonald said...

I enjoyed reading this post and it gave me a new appreciation for President Obama. I had missed his end-to-perpetual-war speech, but I'm going to track it down and listen to it.
I find it interesting how all the NeoCons who attacked Obama over the speech are all a bunch of chickenhawk cowards who never served in uniform (although that doesn't prevent them from smearing war heroes like John Kerry).

Anonymous said...

I think that President Obama’s speech to end the Perpetual War is a start in the right direction. The Republican Party has tipped over and the Democratic Party is very closely behind. I agree the President is pretty much on his own, because neither party wants to anger their corporate sponsors. I have no compassion for the scumball terrorists in Guantanamo. I am sure they are the worst of the worst, the President can lower them into an abandoned salt mine.

Anonymous said...

I've actually been slightly surprised that there hasn't been more widespread Republican push-back over his notion that the war on terror is not open-ended. (I think perhaps because many were already off in their districts on MemDay vacation, saluting the fallen that -- as your blog's first replier aptly noted -- some of these chickenhawks would never be.

I said to m'lady immediately after the speech ended, "That one's going in the history books." I think it's more than a legacy issue, though that plays a part for sure.

Obama has long stated views closely associated with the philosophical/spiritual concept of "just war," and the disparities between the policies of "nonviolence of the strong/ weak" "and violence of the strong/weak." It's a variant of the old meme of "peace through strength," however much that ancient mantra was misconstrued in the Goldwater campaign and the Reagan years, But its underpinnings are rooted in a desire for a calm planet where humankind can get about its true business of spiritual development, understanding and compassion. Conceptually, it's a long-overdue reply to the "Me Decade" that many in the minority party still embrace.

I know Obama's done little lately (pre-speech) about shipping the majority of detainees adjudged harmless back to Yemen, I think largely out of concern that the country's volatility might lead any aggrieved by their Cuban treatment to sign up with AQAP once back home and continue the fight.

But I keep hearing progressive plaints suggesting that the president could just shut Gitmo "if he really wanted to." If US law bars his moving the worst of the detainees to mainland US, and CIA interrogations sully their civilian trial, I don't see where these folks think he can transfer them until we figure out a means to try them in accord with US law that assures their ongoing incarceration.

Obama glossed over that in his speech (something like, "I'm sure we'll find an answer"), but it remains the knottiest problem at Gitmo, with no easy cure.

But you're definitely right that the speech in its comprehensive entirety deserves a serious salute, and it's sad for the Republic that too many, like your second replier, missed it in the moment. May more of them, like that one, go back and take another look.

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