So Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has become a war president. He’s reluctant about it all, so apparently that makes it OK. Still, a moment’s reflection on the irony of this situation might be in order.
Like all successful politicians, Obama fulfilled a need. In 2008, many Americans were fed up with our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when there seemed to be no end in sight. Rhetoric about fighting terrorism from Bush and the Neo-cons seemed tired, and fell on deaf ears. Anti-American sentiment was high in much of the world, and we knew it.
Obama was our messiah. He promised to deliver us from our embarrassment over Bush’s foreign policy. He was going to atone for our sins, particularly regarding the Iraq war. He commanded us to repent: bring home our troops, end our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, downsize the military, and stop acting unilaterally and making the rest of the world hate us. Oh, and use the money saved for a socialist agenda at home.
Americans weren’t the only ones impressed by his rhetoric. He hadn’t been in office very long before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which must have been given to him based on what he promised to do, rather than what he had done. It was a statement from the elites of the international community that they approved – among other things – of the shift in foreign policy which Obama proposed. It was, therefore, also an implicit condemnation of the Bush administration.
And it wasn’t just rhetoric. Obama genuinely wanted to scale back on America’s involvement in the world. But as time went on it became clear that his idea of scaling back was based on a deep ambivalence regarding America’s role in the international community. He may have been the messiah for America, but the opposite was true regarding the rest of the world. Under Obama, American leadership often seemed to mean a shrugging of the shoulders.
But shrugging the shoulders is not the same as peace-making. No where is this more striking than in Syria. Obama’s lack of action in Syria – until now – smacked more of a distressing negligence than anything ‘peaceful’.
Now, with the crisis of IS in Syria and Iraq spinning out of control, Obama has very little choice but to resort to military involvement. We are warned it will take at least a couple of years, but of course there is no definite end in sight. The US has already been criticized by Iran and Russia for the Syrian air strikes, with Russia especially accusing the US of acting ‘unilaterally’ and ‘destabilizing the region’. Much of the political left is up in arms, with its usual claims about the US only getting involved in the region to protect its commercial interests. It’s all sounding strikingly similar to the Bush era.
If there is a lesson to be learned by this turn of events, perhaps it is this: the promises of messianic politics may help assuage our guilt and shame, but the problem is that these promises are empty. They cannot be fulfilled. In the real world, terrorist networks grow. States fail. Horrible atrocities are committed. Our countrymen get brutally beheaded. We are confronted with people who speak only the language of force. Sometimes we have to go to war, and not everyone in the world is going to be happy about it. Although America may have a myriad of sins for which it must atone, that atonement simply cannot consist of turning our swords into plows.