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What Obama Really Thinks About the Surge
Posted on Dec 10, 2009
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.
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.
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