Philosophy Weekend: Medea Benjamin Debates The President

The use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root. And in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war through drones or special forces or troop deployments will prove self- defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.

So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. And moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.

— President Barack Obama, National Defense Institute, May 23 2013

We’ve been waiting patiently — too patiently, we may sometimes think — for President Obama to address our concerns about disturbing new advances in the technology of warfare that seem to promise a horrific future for our entire planet. What can we possibly think about targeted killings in Pakistan and Afghanistan using remote-controlled aircrafts — targeted killings that aren’t targeted enough to avoid killing innocent civilians? Are we still trying to pretend that there can ever be a meaningful rulebook for drones?

Last week, the President didn’t manage to answer these unanswerable questions, but at least he talked about them, in a speech designed to advance public debate on all topics involving the USA’s military policy and war on terrorism. The speech is worth reading in full, even though the best moments occurred outside of this transcript, when the brave activist and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin heckled the President repeatedly, demanding something more than wishy-washy answers.

Media reactions to Medea Benjamin’s outbursts have varied all too predictably: mainstream coverage paints her as “crazy”, while right-wing conspiracy theorists insist that Obama planted her in the audience so he could appear reasonable by calmly mollifying her, as he graciously did:

I’m willing to cut that young lady interrupting me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about. The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.

Medea Benjamin is not only passionate; she’s also knowledge about her subjects, from Guantanamo Bay to drone warfare. She’s the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, an informative if workmanlike book that merely states the obvious, as far as I can tell — but it’s important for doing so since the obvious is largely unseen.

I consider Medea Benjamin a hero for her continued acts of public protest. (And, while her book on drones is more factual than literary, I’m also intrigued by her chosen pen name’s literary origins — she took “Medea” from the play by Euripides.)

It’s harder for me to decide what to think about the speech Benjamin was heckling — a speech at a military institute, designed to stir up public discussion of topics so volatile and fundamentally incendiary that they are rarely discussed at all.

I’m willing to cut Barack Obama some slack, and assume that his ultimate goal is to increase public support for peacemaking efforts around the world. It’s important for the voting public to remember that a President is always beholden to the voting public on military or diplomatic matters, since a foreign policy that isn’t widely supported by the population is always vulnerable to collapse from internal pressure. When a wartime President needs to take actions to reduce tensions around the world, he also needs his citizenry to give him support. I believe this week’s speech was a plea for this kind of support.

Obama’s statement that our aggressive actions around the world may “alter our country in troubling ways” is way too passive, but at least he spoke these words, and at least he’s making a gesture towards further public discussion of these topics. This is the right approach, because it’s the public — not the President — who determines the direction of US foreign policy.

I’ve been furiously reading books about the Vietnam War lately (for some reason I can’t fully explain). Even though I’ve read books about the Vietnam War before, I keep learning new things, and was most recently surprised at a perspective presented by a couple of different sources regarding President Lyndon B. Johnson’s rationale for leading this country into that ruinous quagmire. The surprising truth is the extent to which LBJ really didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam. He did it because the public demanded it.

Like many liberal American politicians, Lyndon Johnson was mainly interested in domestic policies. He wanted to help the poor. He wanted to increase our commitment to civil rights and racial equality. The Vietnam War was a terrible distraction for him, and since foreign policy was largely outside his personal area of expertise, he made the bad decision to entrust US policy to military leadership, which was predisposed to always ask for more troops, more commitment. LBJ also made the bad decision to avoid fighting against majority public opinion in the United States, which was aggressively pro-war. Records of White House meetings prove that President Johnson searched for ways to avoid escalation in Vietnam, but ultimately capitulated to the public’s taste for decisive military action.

Today, unfortunately, the public still has a taste for decisive military action. When we criticize our leaders for continuing ruinous and inhumane policies around the world, we are failing to recognize that our leaders follow us. It’s all of us — me, you, Barack Obama, Medea Benjamin — who need to speak up and make ourselves heard. Maybe some truths were spoken during Obama’s speech this week — spoken from the audience, but spoken nonetheless — that will help the situation improve. I don’t know how to make things better, but I do believe that more public discussion will help. The so-called “war on terrorism” is not actually Barack Obama’s war — it’s your war, and mine. What do you think about it?

7 Responses

  1. You’d cut the slack for the
    You’d cut the slack for the noose he was putting around your neck.

    Media Franklin would be right there objecting, getting her ego kicks.

    Welcome to the machine (I hAtE Pink Floyd)

    Dispatches by Michael Herr is the best book I ever read about Vietnam and is a book about the combat there, not politics. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is also a must read. Stone’s Dog Soldiers nailed the zeitgeist. Noam Chomsky wrote that the Viet Nam war was a grab for minerals, e.g., the present “land grab” in the South China Sea by all neighboring countries.
    America’s wars are thought to be fought by technology, rather than its underclass, thus the thirst for blood and the misperception that
    “they”, the Other, are after us when anyone who can, wants to emigrate to the USA for the American Dream.
    As for the Global War on Terror, didn’t the President claim de facto victory?

  3. …now, war should only be
    …now, war should only be fought in matters of defense. Avoiding extinction should be vigorously persued. Bombs and machine guns and drones. AMD drones with machine guns and bombs. Invisible, at night. War should be won. Quickly and decisively. It is the only humane way. But beyond war, these instruments should not be used. Also, I’m talking war in the figurative sense. Not only literal. The cops can be in a war. However, the everyday monitoring and snooping and auditing and censoring and harassing. Or has to stop. I know if I see a drone over my house I might shoot it down. Who knows who it could be. But they fly high. Too high to see. Invisible during the day. Silent and electric. I might get the docs called on me for feeding my dogs ole Roy and leaving them in the rain. These suburbs are relentless. Think of all the life lost in defense of our liberty. This long weekend for sure. I know I drank some ale for the dead. These drones are troubling. Soon it will be clones flying drones. What a question that will be. The clones will do all the fighting for us. And dying. Hell, we may live to 200. Like the old testament folks. It the nukes that’ll change it all one day. Clones and drones and trombones and broken bones by the millions.

  4. I find Medea Benjamin
    I find Medea Benjamin annoying and boring. She’s not much of a listener, is she?

  5. ….drones and clones….
    ….drones and clones….

    .look up look up
    .there’s a drone flying by
    .flown by a clone
    .we don’t even have to die

    .kamikazee man
    .working the remote control
    .no expressions on the clones
    .they don’t even really know

    .salute the hackers I guess
    .ours are better than theirs
    .the best viruses around
    .go straight to your head

    .the public is a mess
    .hypnotized and tranced
    .don’t want to know the truth
    .don’t want to take a stance

    .its just drones and clones(yea yea yea)
    .drones and clones(the brave are dead)

    .over there over there
    .its the man driving by
    .everybody knows
    .got tears in his eyes

    .likes the lofty titles
    .likes the free jet air
    .loves hanging with his daughters
    .not giving a care

    .peaceful men they know
    .women and the like
    .we’re all left to wonder
    .why the drones rule the night

    .its just drones and clones(yea yea yea)
    .drones and clones(the brave are dead)

  6. The war on terror, the war on
    The war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on health care, all the wars America has engaged in all across the globe, the individual battles each and everyone of us fights daily to maintain our sanity, maintain our homes, maintain our personal way of life, keep our shekels … the war Big Corporation is quietly waging against the common laborers thru robotic replacements that cost so much less… and let’s toss in the war led by Big Pharma who call the prices on their products that have surreal names that nobody has every heard of and promise relief from the stresses of life we all endure (and please read the fine print which never assures pure relief or simple cures). Is there not a politician in Congress or a President who will ever question why health care costs continue rising and rising and rising year after year, our is that a freedom Big Pharma has?

    America is a battlefield since the country became “United” and has been battling for “holding these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” at any cost… so heavily we American’s have been indoctrinated into believing. We will go to war at the drop of the three cornered hat, assuming we have been endowed by our creator to ‘save the world’… a world that evidently is so uninformed, so bound by their leadership, so hungry for what we Americans only dream of, “Freedom”, that illusive word that we insist is found in our ‘free press’, ‘freedom of worship’, ‘freedom of assembly’, ‘freedom of speech’, and the ever so popular “freedom to bear arms”, as if those handful of words is what freedom truly is and will forever be.

    Tell me, why is it that we Americans are only some 4.5% of the world population but yet we all seem to feel that every country in the world is completely envious of our life? If that were fact, why then don’t those people dump their politics and rewrite them so they can be just like America? Are the other 95.5% of the world so enslaved that they are totally unable to ever be free as Americans…?

    And yet our politicians and generals tell us that our wars are vital to our protection. Protecting our shores from all the other 95% waiting offshore to storm our coasts so they too, can be Americans…presumably.

    We all know Forbes magazine. January of this year they came out with a list of “The Happiest (and Saddest) Countries and America was rated, not first!, not second! or even in the Top Ten, but had fallen to 12th place in world standings. Why all the nationalistic bravado we keep hearing about our country..? Is it a desire to go back to the “good old days” when we were the envy of the world (or so it was thought)?

    Unfortunately we cannot wage war against the Happiest Countries in the Top Ten, which begins with #1 – Norway, followed by Denmark, #3 Sweden, Australia and New Zealand ranking 4th and 5th, Canada #6 and 7th Finland, #8 Netherlands, #9 Switzerland and the 10th Ireland (despite all the financial problems we’ve heard about).

    How many of the ten countries live for the next war to save the world? Or are these countries sane enough to live for the day and not some illusive future when we’ll all be free as our Constitution states?

    At my age, a veteran of the Viet Nam war, have no memory of America not being engaged in some level of war or another. And here we are with our first black (more accurately, bi-racial) President who would ideally like the country to put away the war machine and bring about a ‘more perfect Union’ right here in the good old U.S.A… a country that still has great promise to living up to the ideals we all have been conditioned to believe in. But we all know how the ‘other side of the political fence’ will fight tooth and nail against a peaceful coexistence with even our own citizens. A futile battle that never seems to agree.

    Everyone has their personal opinions on how to reach the point, but in today’s political arena it is the uber-wealthy, the corporate giants, that threaten our dreams to better our country. That is truly the next war on the horizon, and hopefully the final for a long, long time for a weary, tired, exhausted America.

  7. I think the incredibly wide
    I think the incredibly wide variety of strongly-stated responses that have been posted as comments here really says something. These are obviously issues that many people have very intense opinions about. This is why these issues are so difficult to discuss. And why it’s so important to keep trying to do so.

    TKG, I really don’t know what you’re talking about! Obama has not put a noose around my neck anytime that I can remember. I did used to feel a tightening sensation around my neck whenever I saw Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan on TV.

    Lynn Dee … well, I do know that protestors like Medea Benjamin irk many people. I experienced a lot of this directly during the Occupy protests in NY City a year and a half ago, when many New Yorkers expressed extreme irritation at the protestors. But I think it is important to go ahead and protest when there is an important cause at stake, despite the fact that the act of protest is often obnoxious.

    Mtmynd — I forgot that you were a Vietnam vet. That certainly gives your words some added weight.

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