….We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that
“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
….I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh
judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those
of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or
20 years from now — when the United States of America is still
holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece
of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current
situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being
held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who
interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate
about. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders
foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our
children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University is worth very serious and critical reading. It’s long, but fascinating and asks a deeply disturbing question: “IS THIS WHO WE ARE?”
The speech argues for a pull back from the perpetual state of war and the most obvious violations of human rights inherent in the “Global War On Terror”. That would be quite a departure from the actions and rhetoric of the last ten destructive years, not only during the Bush presidency. While Obama has criticized some of the worst of those policies before, and has sought to reduce the direct commitment of US troops to land wars, some of the worst abuses of civil liberties have continued and the abomination of drone strikes and assassinations has been greatly expanded.
Obama’s arguments against the very concept of the Global War on Terror and its domestic and international consequences are highly significant. Some points are expressed in a language and with a logic rare for a president of the United States.
I know, it’s a speech: Obama’s speeches always raise expectations and then are nullified in the course of events, ending in disappointment. It’s fashionable to view this contradiction between aspirations and reality as a reflection of Obama himself, his style and personality or, according to critics on the Right and some on the Left, his ideology. Many of his supporters blame the gap between theory and practice entirely on GOP obstruction and sabotage — not without a mountain of evidence to that effect.
It’s inevitable that much of the focus is on Obama himself, for blame or praise, but a narrow focus can obscure what’s driving events. Unlike conservative NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat, I choose not to believe that Obama’s anguish over unending war and the state of civil liberties is insincere. On the other hand, I don’t doubt his allegiance to the basic features of US economic, military and imperial power. That, too, is clear in his speech and in what his Administration does.
Leaving “Obama analysis” behind, the significance of his challenge to unsustainable war is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed, the Global War on Terror has created serious problems at home and abroad, and the switch to expanded drone warfare has ignited more hatred and worldwide condemnation. The speech also acknowledged domestic criticism and defection of support for war, citing lives lost and ruined as well as trillions of dollars wasted.
So, it’s more than a speech. There is an objective basis for a change away from unending wars and gambles that could ignite new wars.
Of course, not everyone agrees. John McCain and Lindsey Graham cry that it’s surrender and, shamefully, Congress passes a bipartisan resolution promising full support to Israel if it strikes Iran.
That brings us to Obama’s question: “Is this who we are?” Unfortunately, most of our wars end only after the public sees that they can’t be won and that further costs and sacrifices are unsustainable. At the onset of wars, moral questions are raised by a minority, but cruel reality eventually brings them to the fore. Obama’s speech raised some serious moral questions, and his respectful comments in response to Medea Benjamin’s protest were a rarity indeed for a powerful politician.
But we might ask, who is the “we” in ‘who we are’? Some Americans profit greatly at the expense of others; some benefit from war. That’s a small, though very powerful minority. Most often, the “we” who are the rest simply are subsumed as “USA” when “US interests” frequently mean the interests of the powerful who establish military bases and economic control wherever possible.
When we say who we are, most of us refer proudly to the best of our democratic traditions. That’s as it should be. But that’s only part of the story. We can be proud of who “we” are when we say “enough” to war, when we reject the powerful who lord it over other people in our name.
There’s nothing exclusively “American” about virtue and commitment to humane values. Likewise, being American doesn’t provide immunity to responsibility for acts of brutality. Every day the blight of Gitmo continues, or a drone assault descends on a village, becomes part of “who we are” as a nation.