Jeremiah & Augustine

The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s by Tom Engelhardt (2010)

The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama by Stephen Carter (2011)

The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will you do in the end thereof? – Book of Jeremiah, 5:31

By mid-2011, there’s no question that President Obama has continued almost all of the major features of the Bush administration’s approach to national security and civil liberties. While there are some exceptions, such as his mostly steadfast rejection of torture and his half-hearted efforts to roll back the Guantanamo detainee structure, there are also areas in which he has moved further to the right, including drone strikes, the authorized assassination of American citizens and vigorous persecutions of state secrets cases. He’s also made no significant effort to alter the American military footprint overseas, his slight acceleration of the Iraq withdrawal outweighed by his surge in Afghanistan. And then there’s Libya, which indicates that the ethic of executive power arguments and selective, ideological intervention is alive and well.

The reality is that rather than rolling back the national security state, Obama’s administration has seen its consolidation and bipartisan ratification. This continuity has had and will have a great many practical consequences for a great many people. On a more narrow level, it has also had two key effects on policy arguments, especially for those interested in these issues who have found themselves disappointed in the continuity of Obama’s approach.

First, Obama’s fashioning of a bipartisan consensus has now freed observers from a misleading focus on the virtues of one party over another. Those concerned with civil liberties, a saner national security and the use of the American military now have reason to invest far less energy in caring about horse-race competition and political outcomes. This clarity is valuable, both for practical action and for properly assessing the challenge of reforming something so massively a part of how we live. In an analogous fashion to the war on drugs, it’s now clear that the Democratic party isn’t somehow in need of “getting tougher” or winning more elections or some other political fix. On most of these issues there is no significant political disagreement between them and their opponents.

Second, Obama’s approach has provided a serious challenge to civil libertarians who incline toward the left, or who supported Obama in 2008. If a president who is admirable in a great many other ways has done a number of things I find monstrous and a great many more things I find profoundly wrongheaded, it’s possible that I’ve deluded myself about his beliefs and his priorities. It’s also possible that I’m simply wrong to hold my own beliefs and priorities. Less dramatically, in light of Obama’s decisions there may be reason to believe that aspects of the Bush administration approach are well worth preserving.

For someone whose entire political awareness has developed along the lines of these issues, and a belief in the essential wrongness of the Bush Administration’s approach, these have been a very, very disappointing two and a half years. But on a strategic and analytical level, they’ve provided a great deal of clarity about the nature of what’s going on, and the extent to which it requires a more serious and rigorous engagement than what I might have expected in late 2008 or early 2009. For that, there is reason for appreciation.

Engelhardt’s ballistic missile of a book speaks perfectly to the deep sense of unease and disappointment that the past decade has instilled, and most especially the grim realization that Obama’s election has not led to much in the way of a course correction. His primary method is to close-read documents and news articles and tease out their wider implications. This proves a rich way to look at everything from the construction of the American embassy in Baghdad to the latest in defense research to the ready-made intersections of the falling World Trade towers and the history of American disaster cinema. Engelhardt also writes energetically and perceptively, and while the book could use an editor, as the transition from his blog posts to a full-length book has some ragged edges and many unnecessary repetitions, it’s an easy, compelling read. With an approach so dependent on empirical evidence and data, the book also has the advantage of providing a nice collection of illustrations to complement a set of arguments I’m already used to reading and comfortable with making.

The book is at its most provocative and representative on the subject of air power. For psychological reasons, civilian deaths from bombs, missiles and drone strikes can be very difficult to feel in the same way as shootings by conventional soldiers. But they are no less real—taking the United States’ own estimates, after all, Allied air power killed 305,000 German civilians and 330,000 Japanese civilians during World War II. Engelhardt makes a compelling case that we need to reckon more fully with these consequences, and while these passages of his book are perhaps the most in need of revision and concision, he drives home how the continuing illusion of “precise” air power is of a piece with the modern military ethic of technological supremacy, minimal sacrifice and obscured consequences. And it’s a quite perceptive way of contextualizing how Obama’s faith in air power and pivots toward drone strikes may be less a new pragmatism than an old delusion.

It’s not a charitable book, by any means, but taking in something like this every once in a while is a great reminder of how comprehensively fucked things appear if you take away the benefit of the doubt. There’s a catharsis to so scorched-earth, emotionally charged and movingly argued a book. Engelhardt believes that the country he loves has gone deeply astray in profound ways, and he can’t stay quiet about it. As a single-volume, book-length complement to the best ongoing voices on the same themes, it’s a great read.

There’s only a small group of people preaching to that particular choir, however, and Stephen Carter takes a more traditional, establishmentarian approach in his book on Obama’s approach to the use of force. Carter concludes, both directly and implicitly, that the security policies of the Bush administration are a settled and not particularly controversial reality. By latter portions of the book, when he rails against the use of sanctions while also advocating humanitarian interventions, it’s clear that Carter believes one of the central problems in current national security policy is an unwillingness to go far enough in the use of American power. Much of the discussion of specifics in Carter’s book is glib, in particular on complex issues like torture and rendition, but that’s because the book has different ambitions than policy analysis. The book is instead a philosophical exploration of Obama’s policies in the context of the “just war” tradition. With those aims, and the book’s status as the first part of a larger project Carter has in mind on the ethics of war, the curt treatment of many subjects is more forgivable.

There is also real value in the way Carter frames issues and in his tone and approach which makes the book read very much like a framework for a quality seminar. His thought experiments are often provoking, and he does a superb job of stirring up settled moral conclusions to force readers to commit to and own difficult ethical implications.

The pedagogical air, however, can obscure how thoroughly Carter seeks to normalize Obama’s actions for his reader. First, in defending Obama’s about-face on his campaign criticisms of Bush policies, Carter argues that Obama’s decisions are the near-inevitable result of his assumption of the executive office. Second, through his focus on analyzing Obama’s words and explicating his theories of force, Carter encourages readers to put their focus on territory that plays to Obama’s strengths as a writer and orator and to shy away from many inconvenient or indefensible specifics. Last, by situating Obama’s words (and therefore his actions) in the long tradition of just war theory, Carter makes the president’s decisions and policies appear in line with the practices of other great historical actors and thinkers.

Though often valid, the overall effect conveys the troubling impression that nothing strange is going on at all, when one could well make the case that the problem with the Bush approach Obama has co-opted is precisely its deviation from historical norms and traditions. A reader could walk away from reading Carter’s book feeling calm and assured, which is both a real achievement and cause for intense frustration.

A further issue with the latter chapters, and their clear argument for including humanitarian interventions within the scope of acceptable American policy, is that Carter’s coherent, defensible arguments apply to a situation that no longer exists. The Libyan intervention has clearly signaled that the door is open to these actions, while also exposing how getting one’s theoretical house in order is no substitute for competence, foresight and political legitimacy. While Carter takes admirable steps toward elevating practicalities like possibility of success and clear planning as relevant categories in evaluating a “just war,” Libya has certainly made an awkward test case for the precepts it supposedly embodies. To his credit, Carter is paying attention to the specific qualities and aspects of the war in his online writing, and appears willing to head into much more ambivalent territory in discussing its implications. And while I don’t think war for humanitarian causes has been discredited by Libya, it should certainly put the onus back on interventionists to develop theories of action that include clear answers on the questions of executive power, regime change and reliance on air power which have proved so integral.

Carter bears no fault for Obama’s actions overtaking his book, of course. Yet it’s revealing that while these passages in Carter’s work are an incomplete guide to Libya, no reader of Engelhardt’s work would have any trouble understanding the war in all its multi-faceted incoherence. His empirical focus winds up furnishing a more robust theoretical apparatus than Carter’s calm, judicious combination of philosophy and intellectual history.

The Violence of Peace nonetheless stands as a good reminder that there can be real value in seeking out books that you know you won’t nod along with the whole way. It will take much more than these pages to make me think Obama hasn’t gone in unforgivable directions in his policies, but Carter is certainly asking the right questions and doing so in ways that aspire to restore a rigorous ethics to the use of force. More importantly, he’s attempting to find humane answers about standards of conduct that honor both American traditions and the unique responsibilities of American military power. That’s one area where those inclined to extricate the United States from its overseas commitments, myself included, have had less convincing answers.

Beyond forcing themselves to face squarely the most difficult questions, the challenge for the condemners will be to preserve their ideas, values, and critiques even as others work hard to accommodate our present state of affairs and refashion it as ethically defensible. That competing approach, embodied by Carter, has demonstrated the power of viewing the responsibilities we’ve inherited within older traditions. The question remains whether one can engage in his kind of project with the goal of reorienting policy, rather than entrenching it.

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