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Some Hope Amid the War Talk in the President’s Oval Office Address

September 2, 2010

I was reminded again watching President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address to the nation on Iraq on Tuesday night that our president does have a gift for communicating. Although the main points of his August 31 were celebrating the end of “combat” operations in Iraq and restating the importance of the escalating war in Afghanistan, I found some signs of hope in the president’s message.

First among these is the president made a clear statement about the dangers of rising military spending:

We spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas.  This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits…. Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.  To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy.  We must jump start industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil.

Has the president been listening to Ruth Flower?

In describing the lessons of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president also seems to have read at least some of the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict analysis that Bridget Moix and others have done here at FCNL. On Tuesday night, President Obama said:

[O]ne of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone.  We must use all elements of our power — including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example — to secure our interests and stand by our allies.

Yet the focus of his remarks were on the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and I ended up feeling very disappointed in the president’s missed opportunities. My colleague Jim Fine has pointed out that U.S. combat troops are gone, but U.S. combat operations will continue much as before. I was pleased that the president didn’t use the word victory in describing the end of combat operations and I hope in our conversations with Friends and neighbors we will all be able to remember that the political situation in Iraq that the U.S. helped to create is very far from ideal — as Iraqis themselves are the first to acknowledge.  Yet there’s a third sobering fact that Jim Fine pointed out in a comment posted on my blog post that does bear repeating:

In the last 20 years U.S. policy toward Iraq has been responsible for the death of over two million Iraqis, and probably closer to three million. That’s on the order of one in ten Iraqis. The death toll is about equally divided between the 12-year period of stringent economic sanctions that the U.S. and its allies imposed on Iraq and the post 2003 war period.

Two to 3 million people dead because of U.S. war policies. The president was right to honor the sacrifices of U.S. troops and civilians in Iraq. I hope we can also honor and remember the many others who also died as a result of the cruel sanctions policies of the past and this war of choice. The best way we can honor those deaths is by working to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The president also decided to use his speech to restate his arguments for sending more military troops to Afghanistan. I don’t find these arguments convincing and I was particularly concerned that the president believes that defeating al Qaeda will be accomplished in Afghanistan. It was President Obama’s own CIA director who said that there are probably less than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. As usual, Jim Fine has provided a good analysis of the current state of U.S. Afghanistan policy.

FCNL and the president don’t agree on Afghanistan policy. But one point we can agree on is that the U.S. needs a date certain to begin the withdrawal of U.S. military troops. The president said last December that he would begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. In the last few months, his military staff and other commentators are begun a campaign to make sure that doesn’t happen. One of the tasks our FCNL community will need to take up in the next few months is to try and make sure that date does stick. Which is why I was pleased to hear this line in the president’s address:

And next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility.  The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure.  But make no mistake:  This transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

Your work with FCNL can make a difference.  As Jim Fine has pointed out, opposition to the president’s war strategy in Congress is growing. What we will need to do in the next year, is expand again that list of people questioning the war strategy to the point that ultimately FCNL and other groups can insist on a new strategy.

  1. Mary Dudley permalink
    September 2, 2010 7:19 pm

    I believe these wars have bankrupt our nation. We haven’t money–or so we’re told–for education, health care, care of the frail and neediest–because we must pay for never-ending war. I’m glad to hear reasons for hope but I am not as cheerful as you.

  2. September 2, 2010 9:36 pm

    I thank FCNL for endless patience and efforts in working for global peace. I think President Obama is trying very hard to work creatively with many disparate forces within his administration as well as an unresponsive corporate structure and fundamentalist negativity. I wish I could see him re-assembling a new and more supportive group of people he must depend on to help him and the country in efforts toward a new world which needs peace instead of warfare to survive. I have not been impressed with Geithner, Bernanke, Emanuel as his close advisors.

  3. September 3, 2010 4:51 pm

    I got a feeling from the novel “1984,” watching Obama on TV announcing the end of combat in Iraq. This was followed by announcements from the media echo chamber. In 1984, “war was peace.” Truth was turned to lies at the Ministry of Truth.
    The U.S. is leaving approximately 50,000 military personnel in Iraq, and doubling the number of private contractors, to 7,500. We are told that these aren’t combat troops. Who are they kidding? Of course this force is capable of combat, and will engage in fighting if the situation turns against U.S. interests.
    Some Army generals have said the role of the occupation force can change at any time. Huge military bases have been built in Iraq. I’ll believe that U.S. combat ends in Iraq when the last military leaves that nation.

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