Better Isn’t Good Enough When it Comes to War

Barack Obama could have been worse in terms of foreign policy. Now, worse is a silly word to use when you’re talking about life and death. It’s not going to comfort survivors to know that more people died in the last war or Hellfire missile strike than in this one that killed their loved ones.

At the same time, by body count standards, Obama’s drone war, the Afghanistan surge, and even the current, terrifying slip back into the war in Iraq have so far been less horrific than both of George W. Bush’s wars. And not so long before Bush, there were worse wars still. Is Obama’s presidency some kind of twisted progress in terms of intervention?

If neocon and obsessive Rand Paul critic Jennifer Rubin is harping about Obama’s lack of commitment to destroying the Islamic State (ISIS) doesn’t that suggest the president has some vague modicum of caution when it comes to war making? In the two-party sniping tradition, Republicans would be annoyed at anything Obama chose to do abroad, but they are especially convinced the man has gone on an apology tour abroad, and is truly, epically timid.

This is ridiculous. The some-two thousand victims of drone warfare would agree if they could. In particular, Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, the American citizen who was either purposefully targeted or incompetently struck by a drone. (So far, the Obama administration has declined to pick whether they are child assassins or just bad at finding terrorists.) The Afghanistan war is in some ways as much Obama’s mess as Bush’s, what with his 2009-2012 surge – a fruitless, three year recommitment to that immoral, impractical mistake.

And yet, as Reason editor in chief Matt Welch (my former boss) grimly argued in the August/September issue of his magazine, it is quite possible anti-interventionists will look back at Obama with nostalgia – if only because Bush was worse, and odds are the next leader will be as well. Summing up the partisan divide on interpreting Obama, Welch writes that the president " is imperiously refusing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, or he is recklessly releasing Gitmo prisoners into the wild."

But then, in its foreign policy, the US usually could have been worse. In every war, there could have been no Geneva Convention to protect prisoners, no rules of war, not even vague attempts to kill fewer innocent people if it doesn’t put out the generals or their troops too much. The most honest neocons and the vilest Objectivists both regret that the US doesn’t go whole hog against its enemies. Demonstrating the Platonic Ideal of blaming the victim, Ayn Rand’s lackeys at the Ayn Rand Institute argue that oppressed citizens of nations aggressing against the US have lost the ability to be categorized as innocent civilians. Or, if they are “truly innocent”, then they will accept that they might die in a bombardment. That is the price to pay for freedom, outside actors deciding your life is worth sacrificing. Unfortunately, Rand herself also seemed to subscribe to this callous philosophy, so it seems to be sound Objectivist doctrine.

The US has the capacity to destroy whole cities with bombs. It can destroy entire countries with half a dozen nukes. It hasn’t – partially for self-interested reasons, and partially because the warmongers in Washington don’t necessarily want to kill everyone in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan. To admit that the powerful people aren’t cartoon villains, or even Adolf Eichmann, is not to suggest that the blood on their hands is any less of a stain on their status as good people. Up to a million people died in Iraq, thanks to the American invasion, but the cost to America is the real story if it is mentioned at all.

The 21,000 Afghanistan civilians who died between 2001 and 2012 thanks to the US are barely ever mentioned – perhaps because even usually dependable peaceniks like Ron Paul accepted that war as initially just. Nearly everybody thought that one was good back in 2001. Perhaps the vague idea that Obama was wrapping up a formerly good war that took more than a decade for 49 percent of the people to view as a mistake helped his reputation as a could-have-been-more-of-a-warmonger kind of guy. Or, maybe folks were just so sick of Afghanistan by the time Obama took office that they didn’t much care what he did over there. He was not Bush, and that was enough.

Hell, the last war is almost always worse. The US-crafted conflict in Vietnam killed 2 million people (not to mention 60,000 American soldiers, many of whom were draftees). Could they have killed more? Sure. More bombs. Maybe atomic ones. World War II was an exercise in war crimes as games of chicken. Only the presence of Adolph Hitler could make an alliance with Josef Stalin, firebombing Tokyo and Dresden, and nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seem like actions of the good guys.

The high water mark of evil changes in each war, and it invariably manages to be hit by only the enemies of America. Only freely admitting that you intend to kill all the Jews, or gas all the Kurds, or decapitate opponents of the caliphate makes you a true villain. The blood spilled because of US drones, bombs, and soldiers doesn’t count even when the dead are still just as dead.

And yet – Afghan surge and all, drone assassinations and all, Obama was an improvement over Bush; who was in turn an improvement over the architects of Vietnam. Sure, we’re in a mess in Iraq again. And drone warfare has a disturbing potential to be never ending. Not to mention, the psychological trauma civilians are subjected to as they are now forever worrying about unmanned aerial vehicles lurking in a clear blue sky. But then, isn’t fearing planes just as bad?

In a way, the neocons are right that Obama could have fought harder and longer. He violated the War Powers Resolution in Libya, and he is doing so again in Iraq and Syria. He claimed the right to kill anyone anywhere, even American citizens. But he hasn’t yet invaded a nation and put full boots on the ground for a drawn-out war. So isn’t Obama better than he might be? Maybe. But mostly that doesn’t matter.

If ever there was a cause to be a stickler on, war is that cause. Democrats who once raged and rocked against Bush mostly turned into timid partisans who were so afraid of Republicans rising again that they tolerated their candidate turning into a spying, child-killing, interventionist. Don’t be like them. The trick is not to improve war, but to abolish it all together. There are no backsies on life and death. To ask innocent people to tolerate mass slaughter while America tinkers with the system, and tries to get it right this time is monstrous.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.