Both Democrats and Republicans will occasionally attack President Barack Obama for abandoning his foreign policy principles. He used to be a peacenik, they say, a pure dove. Now he’s bombing countries with wanton abandon. What changed, they wonder — some with glee, some with horror.
The debate of where and how Obama lost his way (or saw the light, depending on your point of view) is endless, and full of potential villains and heroes. Did Obama get co-opted by the Military-Industrial Complex? Did he realize once he was president that Bush was right about everything after all? Was he just lying to us before?
It’s all very fun, but it misses the fundamental truth. You see, Barack Obama hasn’t abandoned his principles; indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been very consistent with the vision he laid out in 2009 in Oslo, in the lecture he gave upon receiving that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and before that, in his consistent support of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, Obama is now what he always has been — a pragmatic, cautious interventionist.
Don’t get me wrong — Obama is no neocon. However, his address in Oslo explains precisely why the president who ended the war Iraq is also the president who attacked Libya to protect rebels.
Obama acknowledged in his lecture that his position as Commander in Chief of U.S. Armed Forces made him an unlikely choice for the Nobel Peace Prize, especially as the United States, at that time, was involved in two wars.
Still, we are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.
Obama went on to discuss the long history of war, from the creation of “Just War” theory to the establishment of the League of Nations, and later the United Nations. He noted that access to weapons of mass destruction made small organizations and individuals capable of destruction on a massive scale, and that civil wars, as opposed to large multinational conflicts, seemed to be more common. He also made a statement that, while depressing, is almost certainly correct.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But while Obama acknowledged the moral force of pacifism, he also stated that sometimes, war is necessary.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Obama then laid out what he saw as the practical steps nations must take to minimize conflict, fight ethically and focus their military engagements only on morally just endeavors. Obama started by calling for nations to adhere to common rules of engagement and standards for the use of force. And then, he told us that one day, we might well have to attack a nation like Syria.
More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
This is a flat justification for intervening in Syria. The Syrian government is slaughtering its own civilians, and the ongoing civil war there has created violence and suffering that is affecting the Middle East.
Obama did not stop there, though. He also called for nations to adhere to the laws of war, which include bans on torture and chemical weapons. And while he said that peaceful resolutions should be sought to violations of those laws, he made clear that if diplomacy failed, military action would be not only acceptable, but morally just.
The same principle applies to those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma – there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy – but there must be consequences when those things fail. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.
This is a clear, concise and consistent argument, and it is the framework for Obama’s approach in Syria. America did not intervene in Syria the second civil war broke out; America has not moved to attack even now, as the President awaits Congressional input into a possible attack. However, Obama has made clear that the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government violates international law, and that because of that, he supports an attack.
You don’t have to agree with President Obama, of course. Indeed, even if you agree with Obama’s premise, you can disagree in the use of force in this case for dozens of good, pragmatic reasons. There really is no good answer in Syria, and any action the U.S. takes, from ignoring Assad’s attacks to full-scale war, carries with it a host of potentially disastrous pitfalls.
While you don’t have to agree with Obama, you should at least acknowledge that he hasn’t changed his positions on the use of force. The President laid out his foreign policy vision clearly and completely. If you listened to his address in 2009, his support for intervention in Syria cannot be a surprise.
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Photo Credit: The White House
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