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?