Since Barack Obama became President, I've beaten up on him for being so hawkish, for perpetuating U.S. militarism--and hence militarism in general—as a way to solve conflicts. In a major speech yesterday at the National Defense University in McNair, Virginia, Obama took a few tiny steps toward becoming the Peace President many voters hoped he would be. But he needs to go much, much further.
Here are some points that Obama made yesterday: First, he acknowledged the enormous costs of the post-9/11 U.S. wars both to Americans and others, including thousands of civilians killed by U.S. military operations overseas. Quoting James Madison’s warning that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare," Obama asserted that the U.S. war against terrorism cannot be open-ended. "This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands."
Obama called for the repeal of the post-9/11 "Authorization to Use Military Force," whereby Congress granted the President enormous power to combat terrorism. "Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions," he explained, "we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states."
While defending the use of drone strikes, Obama said that the U.S. should try harder to bring terrorism suspects to justice rather than simply killing them, and to minimize civilian casualties caused by U.S. attacks. He recognized that U.S. attacks can enflame opposition to the U.S., and that ultimately foreign aid and other carrots are cheaper and more effective at reducing hostility to the U.S.
Obama, whose administration has been criticized recently for spying on reporters, recognized the vital importance of a strong, free media. Saying he is "troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable," he called on Congress "to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach."
Obama called once again for the closing of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected enemies of the U.S. have been held without trial indefinitely and illegally. Guantanamo "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," Obama said.
A high point of Obama's speech was his off-the-cuff response to shouted objections of an antiwar activist to drone strikes that target unidentified males merely for suspicious activities, such as meeting in war zones. After the woman, Medea Benjamin, was escorted from the room, Obama said: "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." Yeah, words are cheap, but I like these words. The man actually listens to his critics.
Needless to say, I want Obama to take much more dramatic steps away from our current militarism. I've floated a few ideas on this blog: Slash the U.S. military budget, start closing U.S. bases overseas. Impose a moratorium on U.S. research and development of weapons and cut back on global arms sales. Renounce pre-emptive strikes, especially those that that will probably kill civilians. Promote nonviolent activism in regions of the world with social unrest.When contemplating armed intervention in, say, Syria, impose the end-of-war rule, which decrees that lethal force should only be employed in a way that is consistent with the ultimate goal of ending war and militarism.
There are so many things that a smart, courageous, imaginative leader can do to help move humanity toward a world without war! Call me a fool, but I still have hope that Barack Obama can become that leader.
Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza.