Obama’s War and the Limits of Reason

Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, newly elected President Obama humbly claimed that he was unworthy of such an honor, stating: "to say that force is sometimes necessary isn’t a call to cynicism, it’s a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason [emphasis added]."

In recent weeks, Obama has "reluctantly," for the 7th time since taking office, begun bombing a predominantly Muslim country (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and now Syria), testing, once again, the "limits of reason." This begs the question: How far beyond such limits is our political-military elite willing to reach to initiate militarism in our name?

If our leaders were to use their ability to reason when they evaluate whether military intervention in Iraq and Syria is the best course of action to contain the militant extremist group ISIS, they might come to a different conclusion.

First and foremost, it is reasonable to call what is happening "war."

Avoiding an official public declaration of war and manipulating semantics to disguise the reality that our military is killing people abroad is not really fooling anyone.

It’s important to remember that in 2008 Obama was elected in part on his promise to end military involvement in Iraq (a war he wisely resisted supporting in 2003) and get us out of the Middle East. But now that Obama is in the driver’s seat, things are clearly different.

And this time, it’s Obama’s very own war. No longer is "the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency," as one commentator so generously labeled him, winding down inherited wars or ordering limited covert drone strikes and clandestine special operations missions. This time it’s all out in the open.

It’s also reasonable to look at our past mistakes when deciding whether to wage war, especially those mistakes from the very recent past.

Our involvement with the Middle East has always been fraught with hazard. If we take an honest look at our recent past, we would see that when we bombed Iraq twice before, it did not turn out so well either time.

Back in 1991, we initiated a bombing campaign, which supposedly liberated little Kuwait from the dictator Saddam Hussein’s clutches. It seemed to go off almost effortlessly – only it turns out we let him off too lightly, since he was allowed to stay in power. So, in 2003, we went back to finish the job. This time, we told ourselves, we didn’t just want to invade because of Saddam’s (nonexistent) stockpile of WMDs, we wanted to give the Iraqi people "freedom," at least by our definition of that word.

But an unforeseen consequence of deposing Saddam was opening a Pandora’s box of sectarianism, Islamic extremism and tribal feuding that had been clamped down under his authoritarian rule for decades.

Then President Bush told us "mission accomplished," but things continued to get bad.

And then they got worse.

Now, for the third time in less than 25 years, we have begun dropping bombs on a group of Iraqis deemed to be the latest reincarnation of evil. This time, the forces of evil have manifested themselves under the name ISIS. It is certainly reasonable to think of ISIS as the "bad guys." After all, in taking control of a large chunk of territory in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS has established a reputation for being so extreme and fanatical that even al-Qaeda has rejected them. ISIS militants crucify, decapitate, waterboard, persecute members of other religions, and ethnically cleanse any groups deemed enemies. So far they have defeated all opponents and seem to be only getting stronger.

What should trouble a "reasonable" observer is that we created the very conditions by which ISIS has come to power: our 2003 invasion of Iraq inadvertently trained their fighters and created a power vacuum where other extremist successors to al-Qaeda could thrive.

But this little exercise in reasoning and recollecting past mistakes should not stop with the wars in Iraq.

Let’s look to Exhibits B and C: Afghanistan and Libya. In both countries, coercive regime change has resulted in destroying the state, destabilizing neighboring countries and adding fuel to a bonfire that has consumed the entire region in war.

Actually, if we’re talking about countries with substantial Muslim populations, we have many mistakes to choose from. As Andrew Bacevich points out, since 1980, we’ve bombed 14 countries in the Islamic world: "Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria."

As far as mistakes go, it is more than reasonable to determine who your enemies are before starting a war; in fact, it’s kind of necessary.

In George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four," the world is divided between three totalitarian superpowers locked in a endless limbo whereby they shift back and forth between being enemies and then allies with one another. At the beginning of the novel, the citizens of Oceania are told they are allied with the empire of Eastasia and at war with Eurasia. Part way through the story, they are abruptly informed by their government that, actually, they have always been at war with Eastasia while Eurasia has always been their ally.

If this sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it should. Just last year we were on the verge of bombing the tyrant Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians and threatening our longtime regional enemy Iran for supporting his regime.

But things change quickly in the Middle East.

These days, we are cooperating with both Iran and Syria against a new common enemy in ISIS. The irony is painfully obvious: the same Iraqi Shia militias that Iran sponsored against American forces during the last Iraq war just a few years ago are now, in Orwellian fashion, fighting under the cover of U.S. air power against ISIS forces.

Our enemies and allies in the Middle East are in such a rapid state of flux that it is extremely difficult for the casual observer to keep track: After 9/11, first it was al-Qaeda and the Taliban; then it was Saddam; then it was Ahmadinejad; then it was Assad. When we killed Osama bin Laden some of us thought we had won, but that was just an illusion. So here we go again: today it’s ISIS and tomorrow it will be ______.

It is certainly reasonable to articulate what "winning" a war should look like before beginning.

But reason dictates that "wars" waged against abstract concepts such as "terror" have no end, because, as any student of history knows: you cannot bomb ideas out of existence.

Each time we bomb some group of Muslims we fuel their perceived sense of injustice and victimization, which almost always leads to violent retaliation. Unless we abruptly find some way to break out of this violent cycle, this conflict will go on indefinitely. Every "terrorist" we kill is quickly replaced and every "terrorist organization" we destroy is replaced with another, potentially more extreme one.

For most of his presidency, Obama (at least in official statements) recognized this reality, repeatedly claiming that the only solutions to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are diplomatic or political, not military.

But as one commentator recently wrote, when it comes to those in power, we are always better off if we "watch what they do, not what they say." Obama now claims we must "degrade and destroy" ISIS with the use of bombs, and later on, most likely, "boots on the ground" in a war that could last many years. This decision was made despite our inability to defeat al-Qaeda or any terrorist group through military force in the last decade, even after: two wars, thousands of drone strikes and hundreds of covert operations across the globe.

Like each of his predecessors going back to the Carter administration, Obama has come to believe that an appropriate use of military force can provide a way out of the current dilemma. By unleashing a comparatively small amount of violence in the short-term, so the argument goes, the peoples of the Middle East will be better served in the long run.

Each of his predecessors was wrong, and so is he. Six weeks of bombing hasn’t budged ISIS in Iraq. More importantly, six more weeks, months, even years won’t pull out the deeply entrenched roots from which violent extremism grows. All available evidence of the effects of American military intervention in the region over the past 13 years points to one conclusion: it will only make things worse. And of course, there will be blowback.

Then again maybe the point is not to "win."

Maybe our political-military elite needs ISIS to justify building up or maintaining their institutional power in the same way ISIS needs our bombs to justify the way they are establishing a caliphate based on their strict interpretation of Sharia law. Maybe war is extremely profitable if you work in arms manufacturing, reconstruction contracting, or for a private security firm.

Because while engaging in endless war it doesn’t really matter who you’re fighting or whether you’re winning, so long as you can go on fighting. Our next president will simply inherit this war from Obama as he did from Bush and this will continue.

But the limits of reason prevent us from honestly examining cause and effect, historical context and our own culpability. Perhaps more importantly, the limits of empathy and compassion prevent us from caring about those we dehumanize as the "other."

Because if we were a reasonable people, we would see that America is not leading the forces of "good" in some cosmic Manichean war against the forces of "evil." This binary worldview serves an obvious function: it provides a simple answer to harder questions of how to deal with the pain, struggle and tragedy we are responsible for causing each other in a complex world. Human beings are neither inherently good nor evil; but they are capable of both.

The current climate of war mongering is intrinsically tied to promoting this idea of America’s uniquely moral mission by praising our ideals and culture while silencing those who have legitimate grievances. You see, to ISIS and so many others in the Muslim world, our presence is the continuation of centuries of western imperialism and colonialism. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2004 government commissioned task force on the causes of Terrorism implicitly recognized this, concluding, "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies." To many of them, we are the forces of "evil."

So what does reason call for?

The truth is there is no obvious or instant solution when it comes to ISIS. Chelsea Manning, America’s conscience, has suggested a reasonable course of action for dealing with a movement that has already alienated so many in the region: "the world just needs to be disciplined enough to let the Isis fire die out on its own."

The world is filled with ruthless autocratic regimes, tyrants and dictators. Some we feel the need to bomb, others we ignore and still others we actively support. We shouldn’t bomb ISIS – not because they aren’t doing horrifying things – but because bombing, invading, and occupying other countries makes things worse, not better.

In another Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones."

Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Michael Holtzman is a lawyer, writer, and human rights activist with a focus on international issues. You can follow his work at AdviseandDissent.org.