Obama’s Mythical Retreat from Military Force


Some analysts and TV pundits are, as the old saying goes, so fond of wielding hammers that everything begins to look like a nail. (Photo: David House/Fotopedia)

Here’s a thought: The Iraq War boosters who enthusiastically promoted the idea that a violent invasion would deliver a stable democracy should keep their opinions about the next U.S. war to themselves.

For many pundits and (mostly) Republican politicians, the Obama years have been a time of serious decline of American power in the world. What they mean — and sometimes what they say outright, when they’re being honest — is that they want the United States to be more involved in more wars in foreign countries.

Sure, sometimes they’ll dress it up with rhetoric about American values and influence. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) — still treated as a foreign policy expert by big media — spoke recently about the need to “restore America’s power and prestige.” Fox host Bill O’Reilly declared that Obama “has not acted as a dominant world leader.”

It’s not hard to figure out what these folks really mean. Commenting on the turmoil across the Middle East, TV pundit Cokie Roberts complained that “we just haven’t made a strong enough presence in that region to have people be afraid of this country.” Time magazine explained to readers that Obama “hesitates” instead of using military force, and “trouble follows as a result.”

Stop and think about that one for a second. The United States, of course, invaded Iraq in 2003 and occupied it for the next decade. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has gone on even longer. The Obama administration, often away from the media spotlight, has waged a drone war in Pakistan and Yemen — killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

We led a military intervention to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country a more violent and chaotic place. And if you’re looking at the current crisis in Gaza, don’t forget that the United States has been a stalwart ally of Israel, our country’s top recipient of military aid.

In short — does it sound like the United States is too “hands-off”?

One of the big problems with our armchair foreign policy gurus — besides the fact that so many of them have been so wrong for so long about so many things — is that they try to convince the rest of us that the Obama administration has retreated from using military force. This is obviously false — just consider the drone wars and Libya and the massive escalation of the Afghan War, for starters.

But the problem is bigger than that.

These analysts and TV pundits are, as the old saying goes, so fond of wielding hammers that everything begins to look like a nail. From the comforts of air-conditioned TV studios, all manner of foreign crises would be solved if the White House would just be more willing to bomb, attack and invade.

It doesn’t seem to matter to them where or what the problem might be. From Syria to Iraq to anywhere else, there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by U.S. military assaults. These are the people who look at the horrors in Syria and think the solution is to supply more weapons even if it’s just a recipe for more violence and suffering.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be working with the American public.

The New York Times recently noted that while Obama doesn’t get high marks on his foreign policy, “polls find that Americans do not want Mr. Obama to get the country enmeshed more deeply in places like Ukraine and Iraq.”

It all makes me wonder why the media gives so many warmongers a platform. The fact is there are relatively few voices in these media debates calling for peace and diplomacy. Too often, the need to commit to more war isn’t treated as an assertion so much as an assumption.

Peter Hart is the activism director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

  • Bluhorizons

    President Obama has many short-comings but the fact that he has not started a single war during his watch mitigates a lot. But there is a huge difference between starting a war and using the threat of force effectively. No-one would call President Obama “Mad Dog” and in a way that is a failure. People are afraid of mad dogs because they are dangerous and unpredictable. The US has, after all, the largest military in the world x7. It may not win wars (usually loses) but one thing is certain: after the US is finishes with you there isn’t much left.

    So, the treat of force is believable. But President Obama is an intellectual, believes in negotiations and conflict resolution and this belief, which is really more like a prayer has not served him well. And it has not served the US well.

    • Redocean

      Aside Syria, what would you have done differently?

      • Bluhorizons

        Too many answers to that question! But, for example, I would have sent tanks to the border of (not into) Ukraine, called up the airborne, gone to deacon 3 and made the Russians reconsider. That is short of war, can be backed-away from.

        What did Obama do? An embargo. Embargo takes time, which is not on Ukraine’s side, rarely if ever works, didn’t work in Iran (the Iranians are laughing at us and selling their oil, embargo or not) and this has not worked and the Russians have just laughed. Time favours the embargoed. They find ways around it.

        Diplomacy? Crimea is gone. and being diplomatic will probably result in eastern Ukraine being gone. If you are the strongest military in the world, threats may well get you more than diplomacy in some cases. The main thing being perception that you mean it.

        The bottom line is that the whole world knows Obama doesn’t have the guts to use the military alternative, which is the same as having no military. Do not misunderstand. The best thing Obama has done for America is not go to war. But i am also talking about not going to war.

        • dsp

          Poor argument, Bluhorizons. Russia has as good a claim to Crimea as Ukraine and the US has no ‘right’ or even good reason to be concerned about the situation (except maybe as a place for deeper capitalist penetration — else Ukraine would have to remain a borderline ‘rogue state’). And, as for embargoes and the Iranians, it should go (though apparently does not go) without saying that they have done absolutely nothing to warrant an embargo, as their actions are well within the limits of their NPT obligations. And, of course, even if they really wanted nuclear weapons, they have every right in the world to them. The US, after all, has thousands (with no intention of giving them up). And, oh, let’s not forget those plucky Jews in the desert… It’s just my opinion, but I firmly believe that every country in the world should have a small nuclear arsenal — just enough to act as a deterrent against foreign agression. Do you think that Iraq would have been invaded without justification in 2003 if they had had a small defensive arsenal? Not that Hussein and Co were great guys but W/Cheney/Khalilzad>alMaliki…? President Obama, incidentally, should close down 50% of overseas US military installations (for a start) and reduce the Pentagon budget by 50% as well, transferring those saved funds into base and town repurposing. That would serve the US — and the world — well. (But it would not of course be in the interests of capitalism, so we can be sure that no such rational thing will ever come to pass, alas…)

          • dsp

            BTW, why is Obama wearing a leather flight jacket in the foto above? Am I the only one to find that utterly absurd, indeed disgusting? Can we ever again expect a President who does not feel it necessary to pose as a diehard supporter of the military, one who will say it like it is that the military is a crappy institution, in our country and every other country, and that there is no reason at all to glorify it, that it would be better indeed to do away with it, so that no countries anywhere have one? Oh wait, what about ‘our’ ability to coerce other countries with threat of military force and, of course, to make oodles selling them weapons (which they likely don’t need)? Ah, almost forgot

          • Bluhorizons

            Are you actually judging President Obama by his jacket? Probably one of the military gave it to him as a gift. It is wonderful to take the high road and be morally superior but that attitude has nothing to do with reality. Reality is that humans are mammals and most mammals solve their territorial disputes by fighting. One of the ways animals “win” is by looking tough and making the opposition back off.

            In fact, “countries” evolved to protect their people from invasion and seizure of their property. I guess you know that. Weapons manufacturers may be greedy like many other manufacturers but they are not creating a demand, they are fulfilling a demand.

          • dsp

            I understand where you are coming from, but still beg to differ.
            1) Hamas is not a state/country (though a democratically elected govt of a small hemmed in territory). Their behavior and general tenor towards Israel may not be friendly but it seems to me to be largely a RESPONSE to the situation and not some senseless sui generis hostility. I don’t feel too comfortable with them having nuclear weapons — but then neither do I like the Israelis having them either. It’s a tough nut, I’ll concede. But I still embrace the idea of all states having a small nuclear arsenal — at least until everyone does away with them…
            2) Iran. No problem in my eyes. I think that the impression you have is misleading. I too know Iranians (from the US, Denmark and Finland, where I currently live, though, granted, they are largely secular) and they are all surprisingly nationalistic but don’t fit your description at all. I’m simply not worried about Iran. They can have a hundred bombs and nothing will come of it — except perhaps that the Israelis might need to relinquish a bit of their unconscionable Zionist drive to command all of the (largely mythical) lands of the Torah. (Disclaimer: I greatly dislike the Hebraic religions: Judaism, Yeshuism, Mohammadism — as they are all wildly off the mark (ie untrue); and any people who try to claim occupation of a land and displacement of a previous people on the grounds of a collection of old almost entirely mythological texts gets no points at all in my book. Of course, Muslims have no religiously based claim to the land either; simply residence time.)
            3) The jacket comment seems to have gone over your head; it has nothing to do with President Obama per se, but was a comment on the media presentation of presidents, starting at least with Slick Willy but certainly including W’s infamous flight-jacket claim of the end of ‘combat operations’ in Iraq. Thus there was no ‘high road’ taken. It was only a comment on the absurdity of having to praise the (imperialist) activities of an organization which is (or seems to some of us at least to be) AT BEST a ‘necessary evil’ — and, of course, a necessary evil is still an evil, even if only defensively. Unfortunately I can’t actually think of a truly ‘defensive’ act of the US military in the past sixty years. And if you doubt the imperialist label, I’d ask only to consider (cursorily at that) what other country in the world has ever had military installations in well over a hundred other countries (and in many of which the population is not at all keen on the US being there)? And then the US military is intimately tied to the US state and capitalist elite (see, eg, Panitch and Gindin’s wonderful survey (2012) ‘The Making of Global Capitalism’ if you are doubtful here). The comment about arms sales thus stands: US arms manufacturers in close cooperation with the USG are NOT just filling demands but are, in fact, creating demands, living to know what other countries are armed with and then being to control the continued supply — or even better the ‘enforced’ upgrading — of their weapons systems and thereby their militaries. That is a situation of domination, which IOW may be called a kind of imperialism, for better or worse (one man’s terrorist…).
            4) As a US American (living abroad at the moment and not especially knowledgeable in any case) I can say only so much. I don’t like the military, as an institution, and I don’t admire imperialism. I understand people who fight against these things (even when, as with Hamas, I hate at least some (Islam) of what motivates them to fight). Because the US (my country) boasts the most expansive, extensive and intrusionary military power of all time, I can only register a tiny ‘nyet!’ in response. I reject the arguments of Mandelbaum and Kaplan that the US is, in fact, an indispensable and, ultimately, morally just power. I know lots of US Americans, first hand, and I’ve listened to and read the published arguments of many US politicians and I can say with no doubt that US Americans are no better or worse than other peoples around the world, and therefore have no reasonable right to tell others what to do, to lord it over anyone at all — particularly when much of US foreign policy is geared towards promoting the remaking of countries as safe for capitalist/foreign financial penetration, to the point of no return. Therein lies the rub: might (including economic and cultural might) does in (your mammals’) reality make right, but I’m not willing to embrace that as an acceptable conclusion. So, I suppose I’ll be forever left to complain now and then on the outside. Woe is me…

          • Bluhorizons

            Would you feel comfortable if Hamas had a nuclear arsenal? What do you think Hamas would do with the bomb? They have already demonstrated that they are willing to die to the last man and see their on people die to make people like you feel sorry for them. They seem to be just a rabid pack of thugs. Would you feel OK if they had the bomb?

            What will happen when Iran gets the bomb. I have talked to more than one Iranian, I use to live in the GCC near Iran. I could see Iran on a clear day. The Iranians I know say they understand that Iran would be destroyed if Israel was nuked, but they say “that’s OK. Iran might perish but the Muslim people will survive and Israel will be gone.” Would you feel OK having people like that in control of a nuclear arsenal?

  • dubinsky

    Hart is quite correct. Obama, running for president, never promised any retreat from the use of military force.

    he was VERY clear, running for president in 2008, that he wanted to end US fighting in the war in Iraq and VERY clear that he wanted to INCREASE our fighting in Afghanistan,,,and also quite clear in saying that the US woould use military force against al Qaeda leaders harbored in Pakistan…with or without the cooperation of the Pakistani government.