Obama's Way of War

There are many reasons that national leaders take their nations to war. They range from the morally repulsive to the ethically sound. But because war itself is man’s cruelest and most brutal endeavor, the rationales for it, whether high-minded or cruel, tend to be compelling. There are warrior cultures that fight because it is their business, leaders that take nations to war for personal or national glory, nations that defend themselves from the threat of aggression or fight for national honor, nations that fight for trade routes, natural resources or land, crusades and wars of religion, wars of revolution or of political succession, or some combination of the foregoing, matched with a suitable righteous claim to justice. I may have missed a reason or two in that list, but to my knowledge, there has never been a war leader quite like Barack Obama. All leaders weigh domestic politics in deciding on war. For Obama that consideration is paramount, and perhaps almost always conclusive. He doesn’t fight to win or to advance American interests, but rather for limited domestic political objectives, to advance his own political position and that of his party.

Remarkably, Obama has engaged the United States in five relatively discreet wars since he took office. Obama inherited but continued to wage (for a time at least) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also inherited the “war on terror” which he refused to recognize as such, but continues to wage on a limited basis. He committed America to the Libyan war (from behind) and launched the recent war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Obama doesn’t believe in any of these campaigns.

Obama wanted nothing to do with the Iraq War, though it was probably the most critical for the United States’ strategic interests, a fact that has now come back to haunt us. Obama’s reluctance to secure the victory American forces won at great cost, had nothing to do with strategic concerns or U.S. interests, but with domestic politics. The war had become unpopular, and was closely associated with George W. Bush, upon whom Obama and the Democrats pile blame for virtually all the country’s woes. Though an acceptable solution -- a long-term status of forces agreement -- was within Obama’s grasp, he forfeited it, along with the lives of thousands of American servicemen.

On the other hand, Obama conspicuously campaigned in support of the Afghan War, though the United States’ long-term interests in that historically poor and unruly borderland are more uncertain than oil rich and strategically located Mesopotamia. Despite Obama’s protestations of support for the Afghan campaign, it is now clear that he never actually believed in it. Obama’s stated support was based on the domestic political calculation that as a presidential candidate he had to support one of the American military campaigns that emerged in the wake of 9/11. He chose to support the least politically unpopular campaign in order to secure a slim political advantage over his opponent, the beginning of a pattern. Upon taking office Obama callously escalated the campaign, due largely to pressure from U.S. generals who naively believe Obama was serious about winning. Though he supposedly agonized over the decision, in the end he chose the politically expedient but militarily absurd course of surging troops and declaring an end date for our involvement. Thousands of Americans gave up life and limb (and continue to do so) in a campaign for which their war leader has no interest.    

Obama also inherited the “war on terror.” That war really is a war on Islamic terrorists, since they pose the strategic terror threat to America. Obama ditched the “war on terror” concept, but not specific targeted killings against particular Muslim terrorists. Obama pursues this campaign with his infamous “disposition matrix” because he understands that a successful foreign mass-casualty terror attack on the United States would be politically disastrous to him. (On the other hand he can obfuscate and minimize domestic Islamic terror threats and actions without clear political cost.)

In Libya, Obama was pushed to intervene by NATO allies. Again political calculations were the primary concern. As a new president, opting out of intervention when close allies pressed for it would have made Obama appear weak. But because intervention contradicted Obama’s pre-election promises of a reset with the Muslim world, a cautious approach to foreign intervention, and was less popular with Obama’s liberal base, he came up with the Orwellian formulation of “leading from behind.” Was there ever a weaker call to arms? The Libya campaign allowed for it nicely though, given the feeble Libyan regime. It was a relatively low cost campaign for America and its allies, if not the Libyan people. The war’s sloppy conclusion, which ultimately did cost American lives, including that of an ambassador, and has turned Libya into an anarchic mess, is of little concern to Obama or his minions. As his Secretary of State summed up the campaign’s ugly end “what difference does it make?”

The non-campaign against ISIS is but the latest example of the Obama way of war. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama had been quite content to ignore the growing Sunni Muslim terrorist army he calls ISIL. Obama appears inherently sympathetic Islamic fundamentalism in general and Sunni fundamentalism in particular. Only when this fundamentalism expresses itself in acts of “radical” violence and aggression against Americans, in ways that are politically disadvantageous to Obama and the Democrat Party, is Obama moved to action against them. This outlook explains how Obama can simultaneously continue his campaign of assassination by drone, but still bow to the Saudi King, support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and elsewhere), ignore the Islamic character of the Boston bombings, characterize Israel’s actions against Hamas as “appalling” and “disgraceful,” support mosque building at Ground Zero, coddle revanchist Islamic leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appease Iranian nuclear ambitions, and so on.  

In all these cases, Obama demonstrates a frightening cold-bloodedness. Obama doesn’t seem to have a problem killing people, or seeing his own countrymen killed, so long as it advances his own political interests (and those of his party.) The assassination of Osama bin Laden falls into this category too -- a dramatically staged event from its Washington end, which sent SEALs and airmen into harm’s way mainly because it would play better politically than a drone or airstrike.

The current campaign against ISIS presents a complete disconnect between military necessity and political convenience. With the public way ahead of Obama on action against ISIS he reluctantly committed U.S. airpower without a plan. Even the Washington Post calls the administration’s strategy “incoherent as well as morally questionable.” There has never been an American president more callus and flip in his decisions to send Americans to war. Obama’s lack of conscience would make Nixon blush, and it would shock most of his other predecessors. While most presidents at least struggle over decisions of this sort, or at least demonstrate for the public some degree of seriousness as Americans go into combat, Obama prefers to golf and hobnob with celebrity bimbos like Gwyneth Paltrow. 

What surprises me as much as anything is the equanimity with which ordinary American liberals are content to ignore Obama’s conscience-free war-making, but were spitting out lattes when the much more ethically centered and serious-minded George W. Bush engaged in more necessary, strategically sound campaigns. These are not movement leftists, like Obama, but rather ordinary people who profess to hate war and conflict. When war is waged by Obama, with all the concern of a sociopath, these folks are okay with it. 

It is difficult to think of another example anywhere in history of a war leader less concerned or invested in the conflicts he or she leads. From the most bloodthirsty, to the most morally conflicted, almost all such leaders at least seem to understand the enormity and seriousness of the endeavor, even if some care little for their own troops or the victims of the conflict. Obama seems to pay it all little or no mind, other than for the immediate impact on domestic politics. Obama promised change.  When it comes to waging war, he is doing something entirely new.

There are many reasons that national leaders take their nations to war. They range from the morally repulsive to the ethically sound. But because war itself is man’s cruelest and most brutal endeavor, the rationales for it, whether high-minded or cruel, tend to be compelling. There are warrior cultures that fight because it is their business, leaders that take nations to war for personal or national glory, nations that defend themselves from the threat of aggression or fight for national honor, nations that fight for trade routes, natural resources or land, crusades and wars of religion, wars of revolution or of political succession, or some combination of the foregoing, matched with a suitable righteous claim to justice. I may have missed a reason or two in that list, but to my knowledge, there has never been a war leader quite like Barack Obama. All leaders weigh domestic politics in deciding on war. For Obama that consideration is paramount, and perhaps almost always conclusive. He doesn’t fight to win or to advance American interests, but rather for limited domestic political objectives, to advance his own political position and that of his party.

Remarkably, Obama has engaged the United States in five relatively discreet wars since he took office. Obama inherited but continued to wage (for a time at least) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also inherited the “war on terror” which he refused to recognize as such, but continues to wage on a limited basis. He committed America to the Libyan war (from behind) and launched the recent war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Obama doesn’t believe in any of these campaigns.

Obama wanted nothing to do with the Iraq War, though it was probably the most critical for the United States’ strategic interests, a fact that has now come back to haunt us. Obama’s reluctance to secure the victory American forces won at great cost, had nothing to do with strategic concerns or U.S. interests, but with domestic politics. The war had become unpopular, and was closely associated with George W. Bush, upon whom Obama and the Democrats pile blame for virtually all the country’s woes. Though an acceptable solution -- a long-term status of forces agreement -- was within Obama’s grasp, he forfeited it, along with the lives of thousands of American servicemen.

On the other hand, Obama conspicuously campaigned in support of the Afghan War, though the United States’ long-term interests in that historically poor and unruly borderland are more uncertain than oil rich and strategically located Mesopotamia. Despite Obama’s protestations of support for the Afghan campaign, it is now clear that he never actually believed in it. Obama’s stated support was based on the domestic political calculation that as a presidential candidate he had to support one of the American military campaigns that emerged in the wake of 9/11. He chose to support the least politically unpopular campaign in order to secure a slim political advantage over his opponent, the beginning of a pattern. Upon taking office Obama callously escalated the campaign, due largely to pressure from U.S. generals who naively believe Obama was serious about winning. Though he supposedly agonized over the decision, in the end he chose the politically expedient but militarily absurd course of surging troops and declaring an end date for our involvement. Thousands of Americans gave up life and limb (and continue to do so) in a campaign for which their war leader has no interest.    

Obama also inherited the “war on terror.” That war really is a war on Islamic terrorists, since they pose the strategic terror threat to America. Obama ditched the “war on terror” concept, but not specific targeted killings against particular Muslim terrorists. Obama pursues this campaign with his infamous “disposition matrix” because he understands that a successful foreign mass-casualty terror attack on the United States would be politically disastrous to him. (On the other hand he can obfuscate and minimize domestic Islamic terror threats and actions without clear political cost.)

In Libya, Obama was pushed to intervene by NATO allies. Again political calculations were the primary concern. As a new president, opting out of intervention when close allies pressed for it would have made Obama appear weak. But because intervention contradicted Obama’s pre-election promises of a reset with the Muslim world, a cautious approach to foreign intervention, and was less popular with Obama’s liberal base, he came up with the Orwellian formulation of “leading from behind.” Was there ever a weaker call to arms? The Libya campaign allowed for it nicely though, given the feeble Libyan regime. It was a relatively low cost campaign for America and its allies, if not the Libyan people. The war’s sloppy conclusion, which ultimately did cost American lives, including that of an ambassador, and has turned Libya into an anarchic mess, is of little concern to Obama or his minions. As his Secretary of State summed up the campaign’s ugly end “what difference does it make?”

The non-campaign against ISIS is but the latest example of the Obama way of war. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama had been quite content to ignore the growing Sunni Muslim terrorist army he calls ISIL. Obama appears inherently sympathetic Islamic fundamentalism in general and Sunni fundamentalism in particular. Only when this fundamentalism expresses itself in acts of “radical” violence and aggression against Americans, in ways that are politically disadvantageous to Obama and the Democrat Party, is Obama moved to action against them. This outlook explains how Obama can simultaneously continue his campaign of assassination by drone, but still bow to the Saudi King, support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and elsewhere), ignore the Islamic character of the Boston bombings, characterize Israel’s actions against Hamas as “appalling” and “disgraceful,” support mosque building at Ground Zero, coddle revanchist Islamic leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appease Iranian nuclear ambitions, and so on.  

In all these cases, Obama demonstrates a frightening cold-bloodedness. Obama doesn’t seem to have a problem killing people, or seeing his own countrymen killed, so long as it advances his own political interests (and those of his party.) The assassination of Osama bin Laden falls into this category too -- a dramatically staged event from its Washington end, which sent SEALs and airmen into harm’s way mainly because it would play better politically than a drone or airstrike.

The current campaign against ISIS presents a complete disconnect between military necessity and political convenience. With the public way ahead of Obama on action against ISIS he reluctantly committed U.S. airpower without a plan. Even the Washington Post calls the administration’s strategy “incoherent as well as morally questionable.” There has never been an American president more callus and flip in his decisions to send Americans to war. Obama’s lack of conscience would make Nixon blush, and it would shock most of his other predecessors. While most presidents at least struggle over decisions of this sort, or at least demonstrate for the public some degree of seriousness as Americans go into combat, Obama prefers to golf and hobnob with celebrity bimbos like Gwyneth Paltrow. 

What surprises me as much as anything is the equanimity with which ordinary American liberals are content to ignore Obama’s conscience-free war-making, but were spitting out lattes when the much more ethically centered and serious-minded George W. Bush engaged in more necessary, strategically sound campaigns. These are not movement leftists, like Obama, but rather ordinary people who profess to hate war and conflict. When war is waged by Obama, with all the concern of a sociopath, these folks are okay with it. 

It is difficult to think of another example anywhere in history of a war leader less concerned or invested in the conflicts he or she leads. From the most bloodthirsty, to the most morally conflicted, almost all such leaders at least seem to understand the enormity and seriousness of the endeavor, even if some care little for their own troops or the victims of the conflict. Obama seems to pay it all little or no mind, other than for the immediate impact on domestic politics. Obama promised change.  When it comes to waging war, he is doing something entirely new.