Obama's error: Getting beyond the 'smart war' syndrome
Contrary to the president's assumptions, the only smart war is the one you don't fight.
On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama spoke at an anti-war rally and delivered the speech that made him president. It was a unique event in US history - an anti-war speech that made the speaker president. And the speaker didn't even hold national office at the time.
In the near term, that speech set Obama apart from all other candidates for the US Senate. But fast forward six years, and it seemed to clearly herald an end to eight long years in which the Democratic Party had repeatedly acquiesed in policies that the party base knew, in its gut, to be utterly disastrous as well as morally wrong.
Five years on, Obama's crucial speech seems quite different, once again. In retrospect, we can clearly see that Obama was remarkably safe, balanced and conventional in the views he expressed. Washington had gone temporarily mad at the time, so his speech was a far cry from what passed for safe, balanced and conventional there. But Obama had a far better sense of the long-term balance of historical American concerns, which he knew well.
He showed that by telling the crowd right away that he was not opposed to all wars. With his customary rhetorical flourishes, he cited the Civil War and World War II as wars of which he approved. "The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil," he said. Obama said of his grandfather who fought in World War II, "He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain".
Can wars be 'good'?
The Civil War and World War II have long been regarded as the United States' archetypal "good wars", so Obama was on very safe ground aligning himself with them. But it's fair to ask whether either of them was actually "good" in light of how much human suffering and acts of barbarism they entailed. Necessary, perhaps, compared to a greater evil? That would be a more plausible argument. But good?