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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Featured, International, Law, Military, Politics, Society, War | 20 comments

Understanding The Greatness Of Obama’s Historic End-To-Perpetual-War Speech

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Barack Obama’s speech last week calling for an end to perpetual war was, bar done, the greatest given by an American president in my lifetime.

This is because the speech articulated fundamental truths about the times in which we live long overdue in the telling, chief among them that our democracy demands that while we must continue to fight terrorism, the perpetual war the 9/11 attacks unleashed must end. And this: History shows that while terrorism continues to be ever present in many guises, it is by no means the greatest threat that America has faced, let alone one that justified abrogation of the liberties and principles that are the bedrock of our society.

Republicans predictably took to the fainting couch en masse, because — let’s face it folks — you either like war or you don’t like it, and the ideologues who have bent the Grand Old Party out of any recognizable shape believe there is no higher calling than shedding American blood on foreign soil no matter how flimsy the reasons for doing so may be. This mindset, in turn, prompted a litany of brickbats aimed at the commander in chief, the most inane of which surely was that he has “a pre-9/11 mindset.”

Among those with that mindset was James Madison, whom the president quoted as saying, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” In other words, wars compromise our values and we eventually become what we hate. (Thank you, Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.)

Obama defined the scope of the future struggle against terrorism and other global threats in a post-perpetual war America. This includes repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force mandate, giving the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement the right tools, focusing on more localized threats like Benghazi, and more judicious use of unmanned drones. Oh, and dear Congressfolk, it’s long past time to close Guantánamo Bay, dammit.

Talk, of course, is cheap and Obama has broken promises in the past. Then there is the matter of those obdurate Republicans, whom he has no hope of engaging. This means that when it comes to actions like closing Gitmo and transferring the hardest of the remaining hardcore prisoners to escape-proof federal maximum-security prisons, he will have to pretty much go it alone.

In the end, what made the president’s speech so great was that it was an appeal to a war-weary nation for a return to normality. That is to say an America that has a proportional approach to counter-terrorism, like the pre-9/11 responses to the Beirut embassy bombing, Pan American flight 103, and the attacks on American facilities and embassies in Saudi Arabia and East Africa. In which soft power trumps hard power in all but the most extreme circumstances.

I am 66 and a veteran. I also am a keen observer of history, and America’s perpetual warmaking has prompted me to reread Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, two of the very best and most honest books about the Vietnam War. The lessons unlearned from that misadventure were much on my mind as Obama spoke. His perspective, wisdom and candor were deeply refreshing, and all the more so because of my own malaise.

It seems to me that Obama has had a catharsis and was not merely coddling his grumpy liberal base or trying to paper over scandals, as some critics would have it. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner was being mindful of his legacy. In any event, I can imagine a late night conversation with a trusted friend who told him, “Mr. President, it’s time to take it home on this war business.”

We may never know, but someone or something got to him and America will be better for it.

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images

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Copyright 2013 The Moderate Voice
  • dduck
  • dduck:

    Thank you for the link. It is difficult to shake a feeling of skepticism, as well as cynicism, as I note in linking to my own previous post. But Mr. Douthat made up his mind about Obama many moons ago, and I would have been surprised if he had applauded him. Unless it was the sound of one hand clapping.

  • rudi

    Douthat is an elite pundit ChickenHawk. he doesn’t even deserve to carry Michael Weisskopf’s bags.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Weisskopf

  • dduck
  • Today

    I think that President Obama’s speech to end the Perpetual War is a start in the right direction. The Republican Party has tipped over and the Democratic Party is very closely behind. I agree the President is pretty much on his own, because neither party wants to anger their corporate sponsors. I have no compassion for the scumball terrorists in Guantanamo. I am sure they are the worst of the worst, the President can lower them into an abandoned salt mine.

  • OWEN GRAY

    A nation at perpetual war will exhaust its treasury, squander its youth and sap its spirit, Shawn. It’s time Obama delivered that message.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi Shaun,

    While I would not go as far as saying that Obama’s speech last week was, bar none, the greatest given by an American president in my lifetime, I agree that it was a superb speech and outline of what our war-weary — at times war mongering — nation’s objectives and path should be when it comes to military involvement, actions, interventions — whatever one may want to call it.

    Of course, anyone can find nitpicks or quote any number of pundits’ criticisms on specific aspects of his plan or parts of his speech, but, overall, they can not touch the core of his speech or his broad ideas.

    Thank you, great post.

  • dduck

    Well said, OG.

  • slamfu

    Didn’t he just do that?

  • dduck

    Sure did.

  • cjjack

    What absolutely blows my mind is the reaction from selected folks on the right. There once was a time in this country where people welcomed the end of a war. Whether the returning soldiers were given a parade (WWI and WWII) or casual indifference (Korea) or even hostility (Vietnam) we were happy to have them back, and happier still to be out of whatever hell-hole we’d gotten ourselves into.

    The Iraq War ended during Obama’s first term, and you could almost smell the disappointment among the cheerleaders for that war. When he announced we’d be leaving Afghanistan after a mere 13 years, the right wing lost their minds. How dare he end a perfectly good war?

    Now that he’s got a second term, it looks like he wants to wrap up the “Global War on Terror” on his watch, return our soldiers home, and put the nation back on a peacetime footing. Filtered through the lens of the right wing, that translates to “OMG Barack Hussein Obama just surrendered to the terrorists!”

    In fact, what he’s doing is finally defeating them. The late Osama Bin Laden attacked the United States not for the purpose of killing thousands of civilians, but for the purpose of dragging America into a long, drawn-out conflict on his terms and on his turf. We obliged, inflicting regime change upon his biggest supporters (the Taliban) and ironically on one of his biggest enemies. After years of knocking off a number of Number 2 Al Qaeda leaders, we finally knocked on his door.

    About the time Bin Laden was departing our company, the world he lived in was undergoing historic change. People across the Middle East were rejecting both the dictators they lived under, and the terrorist leaders who opposed them. Young people stumbled upon the fact that you didn’t have to either join the army or go on a jihad. You could protest peacefully, and if there were enough of you, change could begin.

    What Obama is doing is not “returning to a pre-9/11 mindset” at all. He’s acknowledging that the world has changed since then. The people who think we should remain at war haven’t been paying attention for at least a few years now. As a nation, we’re just now beginning to wake up to the realization that the War on Terror is over. We defeated those who attacked us on 9/11. It is high time we admit their defeat.

  • Superbly argued. Implicit in the view of these saber-rattling blowhards is the concept of American Exceptionalism. I recently defined this pathology as “The belief . . . that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq War at point of gun.”

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    I second Shaun’s impression of your comments, cjjack: “Superbly argued” and, in addition, a truthful and factual description of the right’s mindset. Bravo!

  • slamfu

    I was very impressed, no, surprised by Obama’s speech. I never realized I just expected the GWOT to go on forever as a part of the national agenda, like the War on Drugs. I had actually subconciously given up hope that anyone would stand up and say, “lets bring this to a close”. Obama saying so moved me deeply, like a spiritual slap to the face. There is some sanity left in politics at that level still. Thank god.

  • The_Ohioan

    cjjack right on target, as usual. I felt the same way, slam. Never expected to hear a national leader actually lead given the past several administrations and the current leaders of both parties.

  • Cross posted from comments at my own blog:

    I’ve actually been slightly surprised that there hasn’t been more widespread Republican push-back over his notion that the war on terror is not open-ended. (I think perhaps because many were already off in their districts on MemDay vacation, saluting the fallen that — as your blog’s first replier aptly noted — some of these chickenhawks would never be.

    I said to m’lady immediately after the speech ended, “That one’s going in the history books.” I think it’s more than a legacy issue, though that plays a part for sure.

    Obama has long stated views closely associated with the philosophical/spiritual concept of “just war,” and the disparities between the policies of “nonviolence of the strong/ weak” “and violence of the strong/weak.” It’s a variant of the old meme of “peace through strength,” however much that ancient mantra was misconstrued in the Goldwater campaign and the Reagan years, But its underpinnings are rooted in a desire for a calm planet where humankind can get about its true business of spiritual development, understanding and compassion. Conceptually, it’s a long-overdue reply to the “Me Decade” that many in the minority party still embrace.

    I know Obama’s done little lately (pre-speech) about shipping the majority of detainees adjudged harmless back to Yemen, I think largely out of concern that the country’s volatility might lead any aggrieved by their Cuban treatment to sign up with AQAP once back home and continue the fight.

    But I keep hearing progressive plaints suggesting that the president could just shut Gitmo “if he really wanted to.” If US law bars his moving the worst of the detainees to mainland US, and CIA interrogations sully their civilian trial, I don’t see where these folks think he can transfer them until we figure out a means to try them in accord with US law that assures their ongoing incarceration.

    Obama glossed over that in his speech (something like, “I’m sure we’ll find an answer”), but it remains the knottiest problem at Gitmo, with no easy cure.

    But you’re definitely right that the speech in its comprehensive entirety deserves a serious salute, and it’s sad for the Republic that too many, like your second replier, missed it in the moment. May more of them, like that one, go back and take another look.

  • dduck

    SM, I assume you didn’t mean yourself but me as DDUCk when you said: “that too many, like your second replier, missed it in the moment.”

    I and others “get it”, but we are skeptical and feel there could be a difference, as there has been in the past, between walking the walk and talking the talk.
    I for one could go along with everything he “said”, and many left and right have said similar things, including Obama himself, prior to this speech.
    Of course it’s a different war, please don’t insult our intelligence after you yourself have been carrying on the old war for four years.

    IMHO, I see this as fancy rhetoric with the new and improved Obama kicking the old Obama/Bush in the ass and saying he deserves his Nobel Peace Prize.
    Want to gain some respect from some more of us on the right, then walk the walk and don’t do the Bush on the carrier or the Obama announcing the OBL assassination things.

    Did I mention, it was a hell of a speech.

  • KP

    “I’ve actually been slightly surprised that there hasn’t been more widespread Republican push-back over his notion that the war on terror is not open-ended.”

    I think the reason there hasn’t been as much push back as you expected from Republicans is that most Americans agree.

    If that is true then it might be time to re-evaluate Republicans on this issue the same way Republicans are re-evaluating Obama on this issue (as are Dems).

  • The_Ohioan

    There has been plenty of push-back from the former and future Republican candidates and their cohorts. Chambliss, McCain, Paul, Graham, Ayotte, King, Gingrich – the list goes on. It’s simply that they haven’t made the mainstream press as much as Breitbart, etc.

    But now the holiday is over, so we will get a chance to see how moderate their reactions will be. Most Americans agreed about background checks on gun sales, but that didn’t seem to make much of an impression, either.

  • sheknows

    It was a truly great speech. One that as Shaun says, will be in the history books. The American people have long awaited such a speech, where our leader says in effect..enough already. I think they were impressed and touched by the sentiment and attitude he expressed. Unfortunately, that is not something the right can allow. You don’t actually think they will idly stand by while Obama looks intelligent and presidential do you?
    Like TO says, I also believe they are waiting for a morre appropriate time to dismiss his sentiments and sabotage his image.
    There is a basic mentality misalignment between the hawks and the doves. It won’t get straightened out by one dynamic and pertinent speech.

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