Harry Targ :
Obama and the myth that ‘war works’

Twentieth century narratives of international relations are no longer relevant (if they ever were).

soldiers in Afghanistan

The unwinnable war: Soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo from Getty Images.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | September 16, 2014

President Barack Obama spoke to the nation Wednesday night, September 10, about the need to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For him ISIS (he calls them the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL which culls up the good old days of Western Empire in the region) constitutes “a small group of killers.” This small group of killers threatens the stability of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional states and Europe. Furthermore, he said, if unchecked some of them may even threaten the security of the United States as well.

The President reported that the United States had already been carrying out large scale air strikes against targets in Iraq, has been working to create a new more diverse Iraqi government in Baghdad, and is building a regional coalition to respond to the threat.

The President then announced new measures intended to communicate to the American people U.S. resolve and muscle.

The President then announced new measures intended to communicate to the American people U.S. resolve and muscle. In addition to informing the public, a significant purpose of the speech was to stifle his critics on the Right who claim he has not been warlike enough. This motivation was more about the 2014 elections than about reducing violence in the Persian Gulf.

President Obama declared that the United States would expand bombing of ISIS targets, even, if need be, in Syria. This would constitute an expansion of the war which the American people rejected in 2013. Also the United States would train and equip the “moderates” among the Syrian resistance. In addition, the President announced he was sending 475 more U.S. troops to participate in military training of Iraqi troops. Further, counterterrorism programs would continue and he would be requesting funds for “humanitarian” assistance for the region as well.

Obama reminded the American people that we are engaged in a long and arduous struggle to defeat ISIS (reminiscent of President Truman’s 1947 similar warning of the long-term struggle against “International Communism”). The upside of the message, he claimed, was that the model for our Iraq and Syrian military policy was Yemen and Somalia, which the President judged a success. Finally, he promised that there would be “no boots on the ground.”

President Obama ended with references to American exceptionalism, the mantra of every U.S. president at least since Theodore Roosevelt.

President Obama ended with references to American exceptionalism, the mantra of every U.S. president at least since Theodore Roosevelt. The United States, he counseled, still led the world in science, education, development, and most other human endeavors. And we had the “enduring burden,” “the responsibility to lead,” and stood for “freedom, justice, and dignity.”

As I suggested in an earlier essay (“Lies and War!The Rag Blog, September 4, 2014):

Now the latest enemy, ISIS… is portrayed as a monster movement that beheads its prisoners and murders masses of people who do not share its religious ideology… War-hungry hawks inside the beltway particularly those with ready access to mainstream media demand that President Obama expand bombing, transfer more arms to so-called friends, and recruit militant opponents of ISIS to even the score. This new enemy, more scary than the Communists of the twentieth century, includes a handful of Americans…”

They might, so the scenario suggests, return from ISIS training camps to terrorize the U.S. “homeland.”

Perhaps the most relevant passage from my prior essay is that

…those who raise questions about why ISIS is as popular as it is, what its grievances are, why there is hatred for the West, particularly the United States, in the region, and whether the application of military force would make matters better or worse, are drowned out by those who built careers based on arguments about the inevitability of war and violence and the need to kill for the greater good.

Andrew Bacevich, historian and former military officer, raises the question of whether the lens on the world shared by U.S. foreign policy decision-makers, think tank advisors, media pundits, and most Americans is outmoded (“The Revisionist Imperative: Rethinking Twentieth Century Wars,” Journal of Military History, April 2012, 1033-1046). He suggests that most influential foreign policymakers in every administration and large numbers of politicians and analysts still believe “war works,” a proposition belied by much twentieth century evidence. Bacevich argues that today the war works hypothesis is believed only in the United States and maybe Israel.

Those who accept the “war works” thesis defend it by referring to what another historian Tony Judt called the “moral memory palace,” or the storehouse of myths about the successes and failures of twentieth century international relations. The West erred by accepting “appeasement” in Munich, not paying attention at Pearl Harbor, being naïve at Yalta, but learning our lessons about the need for force at Normandy, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, for example.

Bacevich reminds us that Americans grew up in the twentieth century buying into myths about the inevitability of war.

Bacevich reminds us that Americans grew up in the twentieth century buying into myths about the inevitability of war, the possibilities of human improvement that wars bring, and the dangers of appeasing foreign leaders. Most critically the consciousness of the most influential policymakers is shaped by the belief that the world consists of a handful of great powers that determined the destiny of humankind. This he refers to as the “Short Twentieth Century” view.

Bacevich argues that the popular way of reflecting on the “Short Twentieth Century” involves interpreting the world as “geographically centered in Eurasia” where a small number of great powers were pitted against one another. However, he adds that what he called the “Long Twentieth Century” more aptly describes the worlds of yesterday and today.

The Long Twentieth Century

…has been a contest between outsiders and insiders. Western intruders with large ambitions, preeminently Great Britain until succeeded by the United States, pursued their dreams of empire or hegemony, typically cloaked in professions of “benevolent assimilation,” uplift, or the pursuit of world peace. The beneficiaries of imperial ministrations…seldom proved grateful and frequently resisted.

Applying Bacevich’s analysis to Obama’s speech suggests that the escalated U.S. military action that was promised on September 10 is precisely the wrong approach to relating to the Persian Gulf and Middle East. The President refuses to ask the important questions about why ISIS has been so successful. And nothing announced in that speech can do anything but create more dead in the region, more hatred for the United States, more traumatized U.S. troops, more trillions of dollars on wasteful spending, and the perpetuation of a U.S. political culture in which most people believe that “war works.”

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. ]

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