A Memorial Day Accounting

By Mike Dorf

President Obama very likely would not be President today were it not for a speech he gave in October 2002, in which he opposed the coming war in Iraq.  Delivered at a time when most prominent national Democrats were too timid to challenge the Bush Administration's plans to topple Saddam, Obama's early and unambiguous opposition to the war gave him the credibility to appeal to the substantial anti-Iraq-war constituency in the 2008 primaries, even though his principal rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, was by then taking roughly the same position as Obama on Iraq policy going forward--a fact underscored by Obama's subsequent naming of Clinton as Secretary of State.

Some of Obama's early supporters have thus been disappointed by the fact that in office he has either been stymied in efforts to repudiate Bush policies (as with respect to military trials) or has seemed to adopt them.  The irony of Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after his decision to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan was not lost on many, and to my mind it shows how people--apparently including the Nobel committee--hear what they want to hear.

Obama's 2002 speech was, from the start and very clearly, nothing like an anti-war speech.  He came out against "dumb wars" and "rash" wars, but in favor of fighting just wars--like the Civil War and World War II, noting how his own grandfather had signed up to fight the day after Pearl Harbor and averring that he himself would willingly take up arms to avert further terrorism on the scale of 9/11.

The short 2002 speech remains salient and, re-read in 2011, it offers at least partial validation for the Administration's recent efforts to position the U.S. on the democratic side of the Arab spring.  In 2002, Obama said:
Let's fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.
The validation is only partial, of course, because the U.S. was slow to support protesters in Egypt and has remained allied with the status quo in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, albeit ambivalently in both cases.

What emerges overall, then, is an "Obama Doctrine" that is a kind of tempered, clear-eyed idealism.  With his predecessor, Obama believes that democracy is ultimately a stabilizing force for good and, also like Bush, he is willing to use force to promote it.  But Obama is temperamentally cautious, much less the cowboy that Bush fancied himself. Obama is willing to go in, but, as Libya shows, not so willing to go all in.

These characteristics should make Obama's foreign policy broadly popular among Americans, who have long combined a pragmatic and an idealistic streak, mixed in with periodic bouts of isolationism.  Obama is not an isolationist, but his caution can make his views more attractive to isolationists than the approach of some of his predecessors.  Except in the extremely unlikely event that the Republican Party nominates Ron Paul, Obama's 2012 challenger will probably play the hawk, a strategy unlikely to work: Given the record, that will render Obama as a sensible centrist, not a dove. 

On this Memorial Day and more generally, we should not evaluate a President's views on war and peace in simply political terms.  The true measure of foreign policy is not whether it is currently popular; it's whether it is ultimately effective.  The Iraq war was quite popular when it was launched but lost support over time.

Whether Obama's shift of focus and resources back to fighting al Qaeda and its allies proves ultimately effective remains to be seen.  Killing bin Laden satisfied an important national need and may open up opportunities for a political solution in Afghanistan.  However, it also could widen a breach with Pakistan that ultimately proves more harmful still.  America's engagement with central Asia and the Middle East over the last three decades has been a story of repeated episodes of blowback and unintended consequences.  That could continue.

In the end, the problem with wars is that even just wars and smart wars can become unjust and dumb ones--in the sense that they come to undermine rather than advance the values that seemed to justify fighting in the first place.  That doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't wars worth fighting.  It does mean that one should be extremely cautious to ensure that the people who are maimed and killed in such wars do not do so in vain.  Obama's 2002 speech expressed just that sentiment in its peroration.  The then-future President stated that we should not "allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain."

So far, it is not entirely clear that the President's actions have lived up to the standard he set for himself in 2002.  Whereas it is hard to fault the President for insufficient caution in his domestic political judgments, when it comes to sending Americans into combat, it remains to be seen whether he is quite so reluctant a warrior as he once appeared.