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Obama and Ideas of Force

I‘m in broad company, from what I can tell, in detecting from Obama’s speech last night no outline of a policy for Middle Eastern security or the use of U.S. power. As Peter Wehner and others point out, the president spoke emphatically of deadlines (especially regarding Afghanistan) and only vaguely of purposes. The strongest signal he sent was his intention to remove large formations of ground troops.

We rarely parse the mental idea leftists like Obama have when they speak of military force. Obama didn’t like the war in Iraq; he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan. But he seems fine with the growing war in Yemen, as he apparently is with the expansion of a similar kind of war in Pakistan. He is not opposed to all methods of imposing American will by force.

After his speech, the TV commentariat rose up to advance the narrative that Obama had no obligation to acknowledge Bush’s surge decision, because there was never a valid justification for regime-changing Iraq to begin with. This reminded me forcibly of the alternative proposed often in the period between October 2001 and March 2003 (and now looked back on with an affectionate nostalgia in some quarters): that is, simply continuing to “contain Saddam” with sanctions.

Sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq represented a type of force approved by the political left. The UN sanctions were inaugurated under George H.W. Bush in conjunction with Desert Storm, but Bill Clinton continued them, presiding over refinements to them and dedicating the U.S. military as the principal enforcer. He combined them on several occasions with air and missile strikes. In theory, they were part of an overarching political effort centered on UN inspections of Iraq’s suspect facilities.

The containment of Saddam dragged on for more than 12 years. It necessitated a growing, permanently based U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf. It dramatically distorted the region’s economy, generated tremendous blockade-running revenue for Iran, and produced the spectacle of kickbacks through the UN Oil-for-Food program. A tolerable burden for American power, the sanctions on Iraq were an agent of change — for the worse — in global politics, regional relations, and UN practices. The one thing they did not change was Saddam.

It is easy, and not without utility, to view Obama’s antipathy to large formations of ground troops as part of a modern Democratic pattern of resisting that “level” of engagement. There’s some fairness to that. But there is a more important aspect of this pattern. Democratic presidents have been willing to use all kinds of other military options, for almost any purpose except forcing a change in the political situation that keeps the problem going. It’s the latter objective that typically necessitates ground troops to secure territory for political purposes. The objective itself is what no Democratic president since Harry Truman has felt able to justify.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Obama didn’t unequivocally endorse our success in Iraq. He belongs to a political faction that never saw its purpose — never sees any purpose of its kind — as justifiable. But the occasion of Obama’s speech is a good time to reflect on the alternatives to which modern Democratic presidents (along with some Republicans) have regularly resorted. The American people may not always be politically prepared for goals as decisive as regime-changing dictators, but containment is not really the low-impact alternative it often seems to be. It deforms the situations that concern us without providing any path to a conclusion. As with sanctions on Iraq, the U.S. can probably continue headhunting terrorists for years without breaking a sweat. And as with sanctions on Iraq, we are likely to induce changes in almost every aspect of the situation except the one that matters: the incidence of willing terrorists.


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