Will Obama Shun 'Perpetual War'?

Peace is not really peace—it's just a term we use for that brief interval between invasions.

Midway through his inaugural address, Barack Obama proclaimed, "A decade of war is now ending." A cynical listener might respond: "And a new decade of war is about to begin." Obama sounded pacific notes Monday. But it will be a huge surprise if he can get through four years without going to war.

Military force should not be a frequent recourse for our leaders. For the first century or so of the republic, it wasn't. Leaving aside the intermittent war against the Indians, wars were few and widely spaced.

Beginning with World War II, though, American presidents grew much more inclined to send our forces to fight in faraway places. The "Vietnam syndrome" supposedly cured that impulse. But it didn't last. Since 1989, University of Chicago scholar John Mearsheimer notes, we have been at war in two out of every three years. We are, in his words, "addicted to war."

Being engaged in combat is the norm. Peace is not really peace—it's just a term we use for that brief interval between invasions.

Obama has a chance to break that pattern, and in his address, he gave hints he might like to. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," he said. "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully."

Hawks regard those as fighting words. The editors of National Review insisted that "it is clear neither that a decade of war is now ending—not in Iraq or Afghanistan, to say nothing of Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, or Mali—nor that the final settlements in Iraq or Afghanistan will secure U.S. security interests." Columnist Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal likened Obama to George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.

The idea that Obama would avoid a fight in Syria and Mali probably doesn't alarm the average American, but it shocks the foreign policy establishment—and not just the Republicans. Shadi Hamid of the liberal Brookings Institution criticized the administration last year for giving foreigners the idea "that Obama is a weak president."

To a lot of critics, restraint is appeasement. Many think the United States has the resources and the responsibility to go to war anytime something unwelcome happens abroad.

Obama takes a different view. He completed the Iraq withdrawal and set a deadline to leave Afghanistan. His only significant intervention—using air power in Libya—was brief, limited and low-risk (though constitutionally dubious).

One predecessor his advisers cite is Dwight Eisenhower, who ended the Korean War in his first term and mostly shunned military action in his second. "The appeal of the Eisenhower approach is that it had a big element of turning inward, of looking to rebuilding strength at home, of conserving American power," a senior national security adviser told The New York Times.

Conservation of power makes a lot of sense after that decade of war, whose costs run into the trillions of dollars, not to mention more than 6,600 American lives. Obama has also come to appreciate the limits of U.S might.

When urged to intervene in Syria, according to a disapproving report in The Economist magazine, the president's "response is to ask for evidence that such interventions would make things better, rather than satisfy the urge to 'do something' at the risk of escalating the conflict. His second response is to ask for the price tag." Questions like those usually yield sobering answers.

It may turn out that Obama's real change is not in refusing to use military power but in using a different means—namely, drones. Connoisseurs of irony noted that just hours before he proclaimed the end of our wars, U.S. missiles hit al-Qaida targets in Yemen. But the use of drones falls well short of traditional wars in cost, risk, bloodshed and ease of extrication.

The bigger danger is that he will launch a preemptive strike against Iran, which could lead to a wider war with unpredictable consequences. And though hawks doubt him, he is committed to doing just that if Iran proceeds toward building nuclear weapons.

Obama will deserve credit if he ends the U.S. war in Afghanistan as he did the U.S. war in Iraq. But it's just as important to avoid plunging into another one, and on that prospect, optimism is unwarranted. Addiction to war is like addiction to anything else: The addict always wants more.

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  • $park¥||

    I can't quite figure out why I sudden;y have a serious headache and some blood on my forehead. I think I may have blacked out at some point.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    If a war ends, it was not perpetual war.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    "Obama takes a different view. He completed the Iraq withdrawal and set a deadline to leave Afghanistan."

    The Iraq withdrawal was "completed" because they kicked us out. A proper deadline to leave Afghanistan was the first year he took office. He's conducting drone wars on Yemen and Pakistan, just to name two.

    One of the reasons I read Reason is to get a perspective that doesn't kiss Obama's ass and make light of his warmongering. If I wanted to read pro-Obama fluff trash I'd go... well, almost anywhere else but here.

  • crazyfingers||

    Seriously. How does he not know this? Obama desperately wanted to stay in Iraq but was forced out by an agreement signed under _Bush_. There is a reason why Bill freaking Kristol is an outspoken fan of Obama's foreign policies.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    On second thought, this must be a troll piece.

    I has to be, right?

    You guys are so crazy!! Getting me worked up like that.

  • ||

    It is a Steve Chapman piece. So yeah, it's to be expected.

  • Cdr Lytton||

  • tarran||

    Obama is such an opponent of war that he's whacking enemies of the Yemeni president with hellfire missiles. LOL

  • RyanXXX||

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?f.....WrBQe92e8Q

    ^Some cunt High School teacher apparently made an assignment for the class asking them how they would "handle" Iran, and then launches into a bunch of propaganda about how they're the greatest threat of our age. When a girl objects that non-intervnetion isn't given as an option, the teacher cuts her off

  • tarran||

    My snarky answer: I would draft $NAME_OF_TEACHER, give him a snappy uniform that said, in Farsi, "Team America: World Police - Virgin Liberation Regiment", a slingshot, a back-pack full of gay porn (to demoralize the enemy natch), 2kg of heroin (to weaken the enemy's resolve) and parachute him into Tehran to liberate them from oppression.

    I wonder what grade I would get! :D

  • RyanXXX||

    Don't forget to have her tattoo "infidel" all over her body

  • tarran||

    The teacher's a chick?!? Even better!

  • RyanXXX||

    Indeed. She can teach those bastards about feminism America-style

  • sarcasmic||

    Independent thought shall not be tolerated.

    Now choose from the choices that you have been given.

  • RyanXXX||

    Especially sickening is how she lists all the countries that are "threatened" Iran, ignoring that public opinion in those countries actually lists the USA and Israel as the greatest threats to peace. But I guess only the opinions of the local dictators count

  • d_remington||

    The teacher is alarmed that the iranians have enriched uranium to 20%, since you only need 4 % enrichment to power a reactor.

    Unless of course, you're powering a reactor that produces medical isotopes, like the Tehran research reactor, which in fact requires 20-25% enrichment.

    But hey, 20%, why that's almost halfway to halfway to weapons grade!

  • Lyle||

    Military force should not be a frequent recourse for our leaders. For the first century or so of the republic, it wasn't. Leaving aside the intermittent war against the Indians, wars were few and widely spaced.

    How laughable. You can't just leave Indian removal aside to make an argument about American wars.

    What is the so-called War on Terror most like if not America's once never-ending wars against Native Americans? We're fighting a war of extermination against violent Islamists.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Fuck you on the second paragraph, but I agree with your first. Phoney War, First and Second Barbary Wars, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War...that's quite a few in the first century. Plus the Indian wars and crushing of various rebellions.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    First and Second Barbary Wars

    Isn't the War on Terror more like Barbary War III than being similar to the Indian Wars?

  • Lyle||

    It's a mix of both I think.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • ChrisO||

    So, now that we've exterminated the Iraqis and Afghanis, when are we going to "open the frontier?"

    Oh, we didn't? Nevermind.

  • Lyle||

    The frontier had lots of forts to protect the free movement of peoples and to protect their property. Forward deployment of U.S. forces are similar bastions of liberty today.

  • Calidissident||

    There's quite a bit of difference between fighting a war of conquest (against a far smaller population living in a very sparsely populated region) versus trying to "exterminate" everyone who holds certain beliefs within a larger community of over a billion people spread from the west coast of Africa to Indonesia

  • Lyle||

    We're killing or exterminating people because of their violence and their inability to live alongside the rest of world in peace, and if you hadn't notice we're exterminating, and it could be said conquering, small groups of people in very sparsely populated regions. You know, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and now Mali.

    Liberty!

  • Calidissident||

    "We're killing or exterminating people because of their violence and their inability to live alongside the rest of world in peace"

    Along with an even greater number of noncombatants. And even among the militants killed, the vast majority would never have done anything to the US (in large part due to lack of opportunity) if we didn't put our soldiers in harms way. It's not like it took hundreds or thousands of people to plot and carry out 9/11 or any other recent terror attacks. Which goes back to my point about the current War on Terror being an absurdly inefficient and wasteful way of fighting terrorism.

    "if you hadn't notice we're exterminating, and it could be said conquering, small groups of people in very sparsely populated regions. You know, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and now Mali."

    Unless we're going to occupy those countries indefinitely (and the only one we're occupying at the moment is Afghanistan), I would hardly call what we're doing conquering. And in what universe is Pakistan sparsely populated? It's a fraction the size of the US yet has nearly two thirds of our population. We had a mountain of trouble occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, which have about 25-30 million people each. Those will look like walks in the park compared to hypothetical wars in Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc.

  • Calidissident||

    Back to the original point, there were fewer than a million Indians in the 19th century, occupying about two thirds of the modern US. Every one of those countries you mentioned has many times that number of people in a much smaller land area. And that is a small fraction of the Muslim World.

    "Liberty!"

    The fact that you seriously believe the US government, which grows more and more authoritarian by the day here in the US, is capable (or interested) in bringing liberty to the Muslim world shows that you are nothing short of delusional

  • Tim||

    If we can stay out of Iran, and Mali, and North Korea, and that dumb island between Japan and China- then we will have accomplished something.

  • Lyle||

    We're already in Mali, and we are already in the Persian Gulf, South Korea, and Japan.

    So if something big happens in any of these places, we're already in it.

  • Tim||

    gah.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Maybe we should rethink our presence there...

  • $park¥||

    Nonsense. How can you defend you interests abroad if you don't have any interests abroad?

  • Steve G||

    "response is to ask for evidence that such interventions would make things better, rather than satisfy the urge to 'do something' "
    Now if we could only apply this logic domestically...

  • Dallas H.||

    This is what stood out most to me, too.

  • CrazyOkie||

    IMO, there are a lot of flaws in this view of U.S. history. How are you defining being "at war"? During the 1800s there were numerous conflicts that the U.S. was involved in. It could easily be argue that the U.S. has always been in a state of perpetual war! In addition to the 'major' wars (The War of 1812, the Texas Revolution, The Mexican-American War, the Civil War) there were the conflicts with the Barbary pirates and the Indian tribes. At the turn of the century there was the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, a second invasion of Mexico and numerous involvements in Central and South American conflicts. All of this prior to World War I and corresponding with increased American economic and military power. The justification for most of those conflicts & wars in the 18th and early 19th century is far more dubious than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    Do not take this to mean that I think that we should be in a state of perpetual war or that the invasion of Iraq was worth the cost.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    How are you defining being "at war"? During the 1800s there were numerous conflicts that the U.S. was involved in. It could easily be argue that the U.S. has always been in a state of perpetual war

    The problem is that we don't have a Doors of Janus to tell the difference. I nominate the front gates of the White House.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    Although I'm sure someone else has said it, I have not seen it so I'll claim a "first".

    Obama is planning the troop reduction in Afghanistan in preparation for a war with Iran. I'm sure they have a timetable and it's all drawn up. We'll see.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Its not perpetual war, it is "ongoing kinetic military actions"!

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Obama will deserve credit if he ends the U.S. war in Afghanistan as he did the U.S. war in Iraq.

    Chapman, I hate to tell you, but you are off. Obama, like Clinton, fought the status of forces agreement that Bush signed with Iraq tooth and nail back in 2008.

    Remember the Congressional Oversight of Iraq Agreements Act of 2007?

    Are we going to give Obama credit for something he initially opposed just because his ass happened to be in the Imperial President's seat when it did?

  • ||

    Leaving aside the intermittent war against the Indians

    Why exactly should we do that?

  • Lyle||

    Cause it looks too much like the war against violent Islamists. Clash of civilizations and all that, and seemingly never-ending.

  • ChrisO||

    War is the health of the state, and we all know how much Obama loves the state.

  • NeonCat||

    And healthcare!

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "Will Obama Shun 'Perpetual War'?"

    Yeah. Sure. And maybe someday Fred will win the fight, and the cat will stay out for the night.

  • AllahWishes||

    From now on it is not called 'war' but 'military business as usual'. The real reason for war is not 'terrorism' or other external threats but to keep the 'economic engine' of the nation going strong. Old men and boys with guns in Afghanistan-Pakistan are never ever going to be a threat. But they are 'useful'.

  • ygsrf||

    NFL,NBA,2013 Fashion kickoff for u

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