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What Obama Really Thinks About the Surge

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Posted on Dec 10, 2009
White House / Pete Souza

By Eugene Robinson

The traditional Nobel Peace Prize lecture, given every year at Oslo’s modernist City Hall, does not usually include such words as: “I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed.”

President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel for peacemaking by delivering an eloquent, often grim treatise on the nature and necessity of warfare. Anyone who doubts his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, which he has escalated with an “extended surge” of 30,000 new U.S. troops, should read a transcript of the Oslo speech. Hawks who suspected—and doves who hoped—that Obama was a secret pacifist will see that although he did not set out to be a “war president,” he has accepted his fate.

Obama’s major speeches often lay out not just what position he is taking or what decision he has made, but also the thinking process that led him there. Listening to his lecture Thursday, I had the sense that we were hearing arguments and counterarguments that might have been running through his mind during the long policy review leading to the Afghanistan surge.

A senior administration official, speaking not to be quoted by name, told me this week that the day Obama decided on the troop increase was the toughest so far for the president. The options, according to this official’s account, were all bad.

The president had concluded that beginning a withdrawal—which is what I believed he should do—was too risky, given evidence of “real and serious threats” to the United States still emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Leaving troop levels unchanged would have just perpetuated the unacceptable status quo, the president decided, without even a theoretical path to a day when U.S. forces could safely withdraw.

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Obama decided on a double gamble. He gave Gen. Stanley McChrystal most of the troops he asked for—not just a contingent of trainers to try to whip the Afghan military into shape, but also combat forces to smash and “degrade” the Taliban insurgency. And he set a deadline of July 2011 to start bringing the troops home, hoping that would spur Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make desperately needed reforms.

Obama saw this course of action as most likely to create the conditions to bring the greatest number of U.S. troops home at the earliest possible date, the senior official said. But several administration officials have made clear in public statements that July 2011 is meant to mark the beginning of a withdrawal, not the end, and that Obama’s policy doesn’t anticipate a day when the last U.S. soldier turns out the light and closes the door behind him.

In his Oslo speech, the president gave a brief history of war—from the “dawn of history” through the terrible conflicts of the 20th century to the messy “wars within nations” of today, in which “many more civilians are killed than soldiers, the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.”

His basic conclusion is that war is always tragic but sometimes necessary: “Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” And while he reiterated his support of multilateralism, he vigorously defended the role the United States has played since the end of World War II as a military superpower, acting in “enlightened self-interest.”

So the question about the use of military force is not if, but how and when.

On how war should be waged, Obama pledged that the United States will faithfully abide by the standards of the Geneva Conventions, which the Bush administration seemed to regard as flexible and outdated. It remains incredible to me that a U.S. president has to explicitly renounce torture, but that’s an obligation Obama inherited.

On when to use force, Obama offered no comfort to those who might feel “a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause.” The president gave a list of potential causes that was actually quite comprehensive. He said that war can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as in the Balkans. He mentioned failed states, such as Somalia. He talked about the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Obama concluded with soaring words of hope, but drew a clear distinction between the world as we would like it to be and the world as it is. No, it wasn’t at all the kind of Nobel lecture we usually hear.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Smudge Martens, December 11, 2009 at 9:48 am Link to this comment

“A senior administration official, speaking not to be quoted by name, told me this week…”

Why is it that the American people have to hear what the president “really” thinks about the escalation (come on Gene only Obama apologists and chicken hawks call it a Surge) via an unnamed senior administration official?

Do you want a man who is too gutless to speak frankly with the American people as the Commander-In-Chief?

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By bozhidar, December 11, 2009 at 9:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have promised me that i wdl not read or hear what obama says in oslo.

As always before, i’ll merely watch what US does. So, it is not even what US had said or saying now and in future; for me, it is solely what US and nato do. tnx

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By Bucky5, December 11, 2009 at 9:19 am Link to this comment

Outraged picked up on one part of this quote, but the question of WHO did the killing seems academic. Of more concern to me is what this quote is preparing us for:

...to the messy “wars within nations” of today, in which “many more civilians are killed than soldiers, the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.”

In what passes for American democracy these days, the seeds of future conflict are being sown daily. The economy is in ruins and society being torn asunder. Our poor and homeless are nothing less than amassed domestic refugees and our children are most assuredly being scarred.

How long before our politicians go beyond strident rhetoric and legislation that is openly hostile toward our citizenry and start calling for Americans to raise arms against each other? Class warfare is virtually at hand; ideological warfare fought with real bullets, rather than verbal barbs, can’t be far behind.

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By Hank from Nebraska, December 11, 2009 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

This piece represents Robinson’s surrender to the war machine.  Yes, I know that he does not explicitly approve of the speech, but he now sure appears to be caught up in the mentality of “no good options.”  Eugene, there is a perfectly good option: Order the troops to come home.  More explicitly, no type of war can be equated with “peace,” which was the purpose of the prize Obama was accepting.  There really is no grey area here at all.
In addition to this “war is peace” word play, Obama used the speech to deny that we continue to operate facilities where torture takes place, that we continue to kill civilians and fighters who merely want to keep foreigners out of their country, and that his war of choice is clearly a war crime under the very international rules that he says he embraces.  Wow, Eugene, you can’t say anything more about these clear distinctions between reality and Obama’s words?

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By Paul_GA, December 11, 2009 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

As they used to say back during the bad old days of the Vietnam War, “Fighting for peace is like f_cking for virginity.”

And what *is* just war? Just war is (a) fighting a foreign invader; (b) liberating a country from a foreign occupier or a home-grown despost; or (c) fighting for independence from a larger political entity, i.e. a secessionist war.

Precisely what kind of “just war” is the American State fighting in Afghanistan? It’s a war for empire—an unjust war, clad in the rags of a “just” war. It will ultimately fail, as the Vietnam War did. And Obama will be remembered as a second LBJ, if not worse.

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By Zach Alexander, December 11, 2009 at 8:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Still blinded by “hope” I see…get serious. Your excuse making is exactly why Obama continues to carry out US imperial ambitions.

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By John K, December 11, 2009 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

I am deeply disappointed by this President.  He has failed the people who got him elected and created a generation of cynics. I would have prefer John McCain - We would have gotten the same thing, but at least I could still dream of “Change.”

Now I just dream of collapse.

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By G.Anderson, December 11, 2009 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

Really? Really, really?

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By earthwirehead, December 11, 2009 at 6:35 am Link to this comment

Hopefully, “What Obama Really Thinks About the Surge” will be less important going forward than what a war-weary American population thinks about Obama.

Regards Gene Robinson, I’m not entirely sure when he stopped being a journalist and became The Administration’s hagiographer-in-chief, but that’s what he’s become—no more objective than the loons at Fox News, just from a different perspective.

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By Bronwen Rowlands, December 11, 2009 at 6:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

OK, that’s it for me and reading Eugene Robinson. His cheerleading Obamapompoms are blocking his vision.

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By cabdriver, December 11, 2009 at 6:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Outraged, the fact is that modern warfare is inhumane, and it’s common for civilian populations to pay a higher price than militaries.

Your use of the German extermination campaigns is selective. High altitude bombing by the Allies against civilian targets and populations killed millions of Germans and Japanese in World War Two.

The civilian casualties of the Vietnam War are estimated as at least 1 million people. Some sources say they’re as high as 3 million.

The First Gulf War crippled the civilian infrastructure of the nation of Iraq, with a highly disputable military rationale for that wholesale devastation. It was the entirety of the people of Iraq who suffered, not just the military combatants.

The wars of 19th century Europe were largely fought on battlefields far from civilian population centers, not in the middle of cities with civilians in the crossfires. This was also the case in the American Civil War up until 1864, General Sherman declared Total War on the infrastructure of Georgia and South Carolina- providing a foretaste of the way that wars were to be more commonly waged in the 20th century.

“What does it tell us?”

It’s mostly a function of brute technological power, Outraged. It’s my opinion that a paradox is looming large in human history- we’ve reached a point where military technology has removed most of the heroism and valor from warfare, and conventional infantry and military forces no longer play the central decisive role in the success or failure of most wars- particularly large-scale conflicts. Mechanized Death From Above holds the trump card, these days.

And the technology is, increasingly, suicidal-  depleted uranium, cluster bombs, atomic weapons, biowarfare. We need to make warfare obsolete before it devours our humanity.

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By dihey, December 11, 2009 at 6:21 am Link to this comment

Outraged:“who did the killing”? Indeed and why. A situation akin to the “surge” in Afghanistan occurred in the 16th century when the Spanish General Alva and his army, sent by King Philip II to eradicate the Dutch anti-Catholic uprising, in cold blood murdered all or most non-combatant inhabitants of the Dutch cities he “liberated”. Compared to the civilian deaths, the casualties of his army were puny. Although that war was not purely religious (the Low Countries provided the bulk of the tax from trade for the Spanish crown)religion, like in Afghanistan, played a significant role as it stiffened the will of the Dutch “Reformed” to resist.
By-the-way, the Spanish ultimately failed. In 1648 the Netherlands became recognized as an independent country.

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By dihey, December 11, 2009 at 6:08 am Link to this comment

“Most likely” is an astronomical unit distant from “assured”. In wars there is no “most likely” only “we can’t predict anything”

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By GEM_in_Orange, December 11, 2009 at 5:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Also left unsaid was the fact that the President’s preferred method of attack, the UAV, also tends to kill more civilians than soldiers/combatants, whether the attack is controlled by the military or by the CIA.

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By Rosemary Molloy, December 11, 2009 at 4:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve lost all respect for Mr. Robinson.  He’s been acting as apologist for Obama—bloodthirsty as Bush, but more attractive, so more dangerous—since O. was elected.  This fawning essay confirms that observation.

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By Ivan Hentschel, December 11, 2009 at 4:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We need to stop excusing this guy. Especially you, Mr. Robinson. After turning the other cheek at least four or more times, we haven’t any left. Now we are supposed to stand here and take a bullet between the eyes labeled “faux philosophy”?

This latest speech was driven by ego- centrism, not nobility. And “Nobel-ity” was certainly not in order. After he announced the surge/escalation/despotism, Oslo should have pulled the award. Shame on them for not having the courage and class to do so, and shame on him for being such a grandstander.

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By Outraged, December 11, 2009 at 12:58 am Link to this comment

Quote:  ” In his Oslo speech, the president gave a brief history of war—from the “dawn of history” through the terrible conflicts of the 20th century to the messy “wars within nations” of today, in which “many more civilians are killed than soldiers, the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.”

Regarding the bolded portion, what does this tell us?  Mr. Robinson depicts this in one light, by painting it as more civilians are killed “today” than historically.  Definitely this depends upon what period of history is considered.  However, what has been left “unsaid” is WHO DID THE KILLING of the masses?  Was the killing of an incomprehensible amount of civilians (over 6 million) during WWII done by soldiers or by the Nazi regime?

We know, it WAS NOT DONE by the liberating forces, although they too killed SOME, not because they “didn’t care” but because that was the hard reality of the situation at that time. Still, for the allied forces it was not their mission, their goal or something they AS A FORCE engaged.  We all hate war (at least all cognizant people do) but to claim erroneously that everyone who is killed in war is killed by soldiers is myth.

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By LostHills, December 11, 2009 at 12:24 am Link to this comment

You can’t make excuses for Obama anymore.

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