Archive | War RSS feed for this section

Old Posts, Renewed

21 Jan

Here are some most posts, taken from the Archives, that are worth reading for the first time or revisiting for all the good times you had the first time. Enjoy.

SCOTUS pick reflects Obama’s politics

Afghanistan’s no. 1 domestic enemy

500 words on: Iran and Mexico, and Democracy’s growing pains

Has gay marriage hit a tipping point?

Obama's Nobel Prize speech and the necessity of Just War

14 Dec
photocredit: White House Blog

photocredit: White House Blog

There was hardly any single way President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace prize successfully. His harshest critics are his compatriots, people who should be proud that their president is being honored on the world stage, but instead are ridiculing the prize and process. So when Obama accepted his prize on Wednesday in Oslo there was little he could say to convince the bitter many. His speech spent few words on explaining why he deserved it. In fact, he downplayed it enough to potentially insult the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

What he did do was explain his intentions as president, in particular why he believes fighting in Afghanistan is justified and necessary. He went on to give a speech about the principles of ‘just war’ theory, America’s role in global affairs, and his pragmatic optimism of the future.

Just war theory has developed over many centuries by various philosophers, many attributing St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, as the father of the belief system. It regained prominence in American political discussions during the Vietnam war, arguing what is the just way to fight and end a war. One of the main proponents of including just war theory into the Vietnam debate was Michael Walzer, with his comprehensive and compelling book on morality and war, Just and Unjust Wars. Ever since the 70’s concepts like jus ad bellum (just reason to start a war), jus in bello (just way of fighting a war), and jus post bellum (ending a war justly), have been a staple of all discussions about America’s wars.

On Wednesday, President Obama gave what has to be one of his most revealing speeches on foreign affairs thus far.

Obama laid out, in what at times seemed like a professor’s lecture, the argument that the war in Afghanistan fit the just war model and was a sort of necessary evil.

The president is on record for naming Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential political philosophers in his life. Niebuhr was a towering intellectual figure in the first half of the 20th century that was known for his insights into the complex relationship between morality and politics. Niebuhr was a pragmatic optimist, calling America’s pride a double-edged sword, and a man confident humanity could make progress, but in small, measured steps.

On Wednesday Obama made statements that are fairly common sense, but are hardly ever uttered by a politician, much less a president. After offering a fair share of humility, claiming his accomplishments compared to past prize-winners are “slight,” he went on to explain his war strategy. His decision to expand America’s presence in Afghanistan came after many hoped he would adopt a much more pacifist strategy, one past Nobel Prize winners, like MLK Jr., would have probably preferred.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [Mandela, MLK, Gandhi] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This reinforces the so-called Obama ideology: sober, carefully optimistic realpolitik. “Evil does exist in the world,” could never be said by a doe-eyed idealist; it is a true, but loaded statement only said by someone preparing to tackle that ‘evil.’

He went on to make a very Neihburian statement about human progress:

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

Gradual evolution in human institutions implies both pragmatism and optimism: pragmatic hopes for human progress, and optimistic that human institutions (government, alliances, grassroots organizations) will lead that effort.

Niebuhr and Walzer believed that war can not only be justifiable, but at times the best (and last) of options. Niebuhr said it was our “self-interest” to accept our responsibilities as world leader. Walzer saw virtue in military interventions during ethnic and regional conflicts, such as genocide and unjust invasions. Obama made subtle mentions of this responsibility and its benefit:

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Obama furthered the point that America is, as Madame Secretary Albright used to call her, the “indispensable nation.” Global stability is at risk in Afghanistan, Obama said. A loss there is a loss felt in every other country.

[…] In many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.

Niebuhr thought that politics could indeed be an agent of change, but it was still politics, full of compromise and tit-for-tat. He was a firm believer that a saint could remain saintly even in hell, but very few people could pull off that feat. Anyone hoping to change the world could do so in politics, but they often fall victim to its corrupting vices. An advocate of change needs both vision and a strong stomach. Obama echoed that belief when he explained his diplomatic outreach efforts:

Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

The speech overall was very well-written, at times lofty and at times unfiltered and realistic. Obama was able to communicate what many felt he needed to, which was painstaking humility and an explanation of the Committee’s decision. But it also went far beyond that. It let anyone willing to listen to it in its entirety know what is fueling Obama’s foreign policy.

After the speech, I am sure the Committee was slightly disappointed, hoping he would have accepted the prize with much more panache. I am also sure, however, that many liberals and conservatives were scratching their head by the end of it: why is it so hard to pigeonhole this president into an ideology?

It’s because he doesn’t have just one, and it’s a fluid process.

Obama in 2008 Op-Ed: "More" In Afghanistan

1 Dec

He’s never painted himself as a pacifist. You’d know that if you read your print media.

From a NYTimes Op-Ed from July 14th, 2008:

As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.

Tip o’ the hat to SelectiveEcho.

In Afghanistan, it's all about the numbers

11 Nov
photocredit: The US Army (flickr)

photocredit: The US Army (flickr)

Let’s say you’re visiting Earth from another planet. You have no reliable information on what’s been going on in 2009. You read a hastily written and vague brief titled “America in 1,000 words.” Near the end, it mentions that there is a major war afoot, one the “wimpy Democrats are like really, really against” (I told you it was hastily written).  When you are about to find out where this war is located, it smudged–fax machines will do that to you. But you read your Cliffnotes on America up until 2006, so you figure, “Duh. Iraq!”

Silly alien.

One reason the Democratic Congress has approval numbers that are not that much better than the Republicans had in 2006, is their flippancy. The war they (eventually) feverishly opposed was Iraq, but this year it became Afghanistan. What was consider the “good war” of the two is now the newest version of “our Vietnam.” Afghanistan is not Vietnam, but Democrats are giving that argument some credence, and thereby making themselves look weaker by presenting it. Maybe the “wimpy” label was not so far off.

Democrats feverishly opposed Iraq because they could feverishly support Afghanistan. It was good, just, worthy of sacrificing some of our best men and women, and worthy of the surmounting monetary cost. But now that Iraq is looking pretty stable, they need a new straw man. Enter the new Vietnam.

The war in Afghanistan is definitely not popular, with over 45% of Americans preferring to remove troops from the battlefield. Democrats might have switched their tone because of this. It’s unpopular, so lets boo the ugly prom date. But their party leader, President Obama, may once again go against the wishes of their progressive ambitions.

Afghanistan is torn, tattered, and in shaky condition after a sham election and pervasive violence that torments Afghans and their neighbors. President Hamid Karzai is unpopular amongst his people, and unreliable amongst White House officials. He vows to fight corruption just a few weeks after he blatantly committed electoral fraud and strong-arming. The insurgency within Afghanistan does not only target American soldiers, but Afghan civilians, Pakistan, and often collaborates with the Taliban to bring them back to power. In a word, it’s broken. This is why Obama knows he cannot see this war through a Vietnam lens.

The war in Afghanistan is more about the numbers than Vietnam ever was. Nixon and Kissinger thought they could win Vietnam by just overpowering the Vietcong with agent orange and carpet bombing, with more troops, more power, and less restraint. It failed, mainly because the enemy was not a single entity. The entire country was, in one way or another, supporting the insurgents. The only way to win in Vietnam would have been to obliterate the country or win each of their hearts. Both are pretty hard and expensive to do.

It is not a matter of whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, but how many and why. The country’s administration is incompetent at best, corrupt at worst, so why send more Americans there to lose their lives and prop their illegitimate institutions? What good is a promise to improve things, if it comes from Karzai? And if things are going to get better, won’t sending more Americans deflate the urgency Afghan security forces and politicians have to make themselves the keepers of their country’s security? If we lose Afghanistan, will Pakistan soon follow?

According to WH advisers, Obama is asking these questions, and becoming increasingly frustrated with the Afghan government. He is taking his time to weigh all of the proposed plans (some call for 10k more troops, some 30k, some none, some suggest pulling out completely). He may be doing this to check the country’s temperature: how much power will Karzai have once he starts trying to crack down on violence and government, earnestly or not? A month from now, will things be better, worse, or altogether different?

Obama will put more boots on the ground–begrudgingly.  It must be done, because Afghanistan can be won. Insurgents are not fighting united with the Afghan people, but beside them and sometimes against them. Civilians fear the insurgents, but possibly fear the void an American pullout would create even more. How many more troops American will send to the land that defeated the USSR and Alexander the Great will depend on how confident they are a reliable ally is on the other end. That, Mr. Karzai, is where you come in.

Afghanistan and Iran Rule the Calendar

30 Sep

photocredit: The US Army (flickr)

Blink and you will miss it. Two of the most important foreign policy events this year are about to happen. Afghanistan and Iran are at the forefront of all the wonky talk, and for good reason. Last week, the drama at the G-20 summit left Iran looking more like the screw-up, immature brother of the family than ever before. Even though Obama wanted to wait a bit longer to disclose Iran’s secret nuclear facility, he did, and flanked by the support of the usual (UK, France) and unusual  (Russia, and partially China) allies, he gave Iran a stern warning to quit their shenanigans.

Ahmedinejad then proceeded to launch a missile test the next day and declare that these missiles could easily reach Israel and some American bases. Hence, the immature label.

Ahmedinejad may have thought he was flexing muscle after Obama scolded him in public, but in reality he came off weaker than ever before. The “president” of Iran is coming off some of the most destabilizing months of his political career: a near revolution, dismal public support, an inexperienced cabinet, and an increasingly impatient international community. Even Russia, a loyal advocate of Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, is distancing itself from the Persian trainwreck that is Ahmedinejad’s regime.

By reprimanding Iran and garnering more international support on the matter than ever before, Obama will be  going into his meeting with the Iranian leader this week with enough leverage to twist his wrist a bit. The missile launch was expected. Ahmedinejad, like Kim Jong Il, relies a lot on his self-made image as the reckless rebel. The move was made out of weakness, not strength. Obama can capitalize on that stupid move.

Afghanistan is a similar thorn on Obama’s side. The report General McChrystal was supposed to deliver to Obama this week detailing a recommendation to increase troop levels was leaked last week by Bob Woodward, that old rascal from The Washington Post. Obama and McChrystal are having the first of five meetings on Afghanistan this week, deciding the troop and commitment level that sham democracy deserves.

No matter what Obama and McChrystal decide to do with Afghanistan, they will be criticized. The left wants less troops (or no troops, really) in Afghanistan; the right wants more. Either way, people will bring back a radioactive word: Vietnam.

The left is arguing increasing troop levels in Afghanistan is akin to the buildup in the early 60’s in Vietnam. Military advisors are being recommended for Afghanistan, similar to the military advisors sent by Kennedy to Vietnam before the war began, unsettling liberals even more. The right will undoubtedly call Afghanistan a Vietnam if troops are removed, saying we will lose like we did 40 years ago because of cowardice and poor leadership.

These next few weeks will set the tone for 2010. Troops are expected to withdraw from Iraq by August 2010, and military leadership there are sure it will happen. But will things change if Afghanistan needs more troops now, or no troops at all? Will Iraq be rushed to become a self-sustaining country sooner than previously planned? Or might Iraq be once again deemed necessary to occupy for geopolitical reasons after Obama talks to Iran? Stay tuned.

Soldier Objects To War Because Obama is "not a US Citizen"

14 Jul

Breaking news: Our president is an impostor! US Citizen, ha! Fairy tale, America. At least that is what an Army Major claimed as his reason for not going to fight in Afghanistan. The fact that a “real” president, in that no one doubted his citizenship (being a WASP helps), started that war is not relevant, it seems.

Will Obama pull a Lincoln and grant this supposed conscientious objector a free pass even though he is insulting his legitimacy as president, or will he make it personal?

Mexican Army Using Torture In The Cartel War?

9 Jul

According to human rights monitors, political leaders, and the written testimony of alleged victims, the Mexican Army, in their pursuit of key members of drug cartels, are using torture and extortion to find their man.

From The WashPo:

In Puerto Las Ollas, a mountain village of 50 people in the southern state of Guerrero, residents recounted how soldiers seeking information last month stuck needles under the fingernails of a disabled 37-year-old farmer, jabbed a knife into the back of his 13-year-old nephew, fired on a pastor, and stole food, milk, clothing and medication.

In Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, two dozen policemen who were arrested on drug charges in March alleged that, to extract confessions, soldiers beat them, held plastic bags over their heads until some lost consciousness, strapped their feet to a ceiling while dunking their heads in water and applied electric shocks, according to court documents, letters and interviews with their relatives and defense lawyers.

If true, these allegations will further alienate a Mexican people that is growing weary and skeptical of President Calderon’s war on the cartels, while at the same time showing an interestingly high level of sympathy for the top narcos.

The US government has threatened to pull over $100m of anti-drug aid if these allegations are confirmed. It is unlikely that the Mexican government will own up to these charges or even be apologetic if they are proven true. Losing anti-drug aid from the US will hardly rock their operations ($100m compared to the billions the cartels make in profits each year is a meager amount).

I figure Calderon likes this sort of  bad PR. It shows him stronger and more cutt-throat than ever before. He might look tyrannical, but maybe that is what he going after. As Dean Acheson used to say (likely erroneously) about the Soviets: “They only undertand one language: force.” Calderon might feel the same way and opt accept the spilled blood with the fear it might instill in the narcos.

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