December 11, 2009

Obama's Peace Prize Speech: In Defense of War

I’d love to know how President Obama and his advisors went about writing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. After the President’s recent announcement that he’d be once again sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan, they must have realized that he couldn’t exactly extol the virtues of peace. After all, that would be kind of inappropriate, kind of like, I don’t know, kind of like Bill Clinton extolling the virtues of abstinence. So instead they decided it’d be best if the President extolled the virtues of…war.

I kid you not. After giving a brief history of just war theory—

And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.


—President Obama explained why “the instruments of war” have “a role to play in preserving the peace”:

There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their 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.


Now, of course, most people would agree that using force against others can sometimes be justified. As Norman Finkelstein has shown, even Gandhi believed this. But merely pointing out that using force against others can sometimes be justified does not prove that the War in Afghanistan is justified.

And Obama has never given an adequate moral defense of the War in Afghanistan. In his speech at West Point on December 1, he claimed that defeating the Taliban was in America’s “vital national interest.” Because, he claimed, if we don’t defeat the Taliban, then they might retake Afghanistan, and if they retake Afghanistan, then they might again allow al-Qaeda to “operate with impunity.”

But that argument clearly violates just war theory, which, as the President so eloquently explained, holds that war cannot be justified unless it’s a last resort. Because if the objective is to prevent al-Qaeda from again attacking innocent Americans, then there’s a very simple way to do that, one which doesn’t require the US to continue dropping bombs throughout Afghanistan.

As Osama bin Laden has repeatedly made clear, al-Qaeda has only attacked the United States because the United States has spent the past several decades attacking Muslims. As deplorable as it was, it must be understood that 9/11 was a reaction to US atrocities throughout the Muslim world. Now, with this last sentence, I imagine I’ve lost a few readers. I imagine a few people have concluded that I’m just another Blame America First Liberal and have consequently clicked onto another site. Well, people can think about me what they will, but the facts remain the facts, and I don’t know how anyone can look at America’s foreign policy over the last five decades and not understand why so many in the Muslim world hate us and why many are even willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to kill us.

Michael Scheurer is no anti-American peacenik. Former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, he repeatedly tried to have bin Laden assassinated. But he’s not afraid to admit why al-Qaeda is at war with us:

The United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific U.S. government policies and actions…America is hated and attacked because Muslims believe they know precisely what the United States is doing in the Islamic world. They know partly because of bin Laden’s words, partly because of satellite television, but mostly because of the tangible reality of U.S. policy. We are at war with an al Qaeda-led, worldwide Islamist insurgency because of and to defend those policies, and not, as President Bush mistakenly has said, “to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world.”


So what US policies have inflamed Islamists? Well, for starters, there were the American-led sanctions against the people of Iraq from 1990 to 2003. For several years, US officials knew that the sanctions were devastating the Iraqi people. In 1996, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Replied Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” And so the sanctions continued.

Islamists also hate that the US has spent the past several decades propping up numerous corrupt regimes throughout the Muslim world. From the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia to the dictatorship in Egypt to the dictatorships in many other Muslim countries, the US has given hordes of money and military support to one murderous tyrant after another.

And, of course, the US has also propped up the Israeli government and, in so doing, has enabled it to commit war crimes against millions of Muslims throughout the region. As Laurence Wright describes in The Looming Tower, learning about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians played a key role in radicalizing Osama bin Laden:

In Osama’s fourteenth year he experienced a religious and political awakening. Some ascribe the change to a charismatic Syrian gym teacher at the school who was a member of the Muslim Brothers. Osama stopped watched cowboy shows. Outside of school, he refused to wear Western dress. Sometimes he would sit in front of the television and weep over the news from Palestine. “In his teenage years, he was the same nice kid,’ his mother related. ‘But he was more concerned, sad, and frustrated about the situation in Palestine in particular, and the Arab and Muslim world in general.” He tried to explain his feelings to his friends, but his passion left him nonplussed.


Bin Laden later claimed that his hatred for the United States began in 1982 “when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them”:

He recalled the carnage: “blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents…The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams.”



Other Islamists have similar stories—from Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-’Owhali (a participant in the East African Embassy Bombings) to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (believed to be the mastermind of 9/11) to Mohammed Atta (the 9/11 ringleader). Regarding Atta, Wright notes:

On April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque. It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation Grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response.


So that’s it, that’s why they’re at war with us—because we’ve been at war with them. Despite what you might hear on Fox News, the terrorists are not at war with us for religious reasons. In his 2005 work, Dying to Win, University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape showed that this has been the case for the vast majority of suicide terrorists. After compiling a database of every suicide attack since 1980, Pape demonstrated that what 95% of all suicide terrorist attacks during this period had in common was not religion (in fact, the Marxist Tamil Tigers committed more suicide attacks than any other group) but rather the goal of forcing an occupying army to withdraw “from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

So if President Obama really believed that the United States should only go to war as a last resort, then he wouldn’t escalate the war in Afghanistan. Rather, he would do everything within his power to end the US government’s war against Muslims. This means that he would order every American troop in Afghanistan and Iraq and in fact everywhere in the Middle East to be brought home. This means that he would cut off US funding for Israel and every other evil regime throughout the Muslim world. This means that he would stop threatening Iran for its IAEA-safeguarded, nonmilitary nuclear program. And for doing all that, he truly would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

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