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President Obama And 'The Violence Of Peace'

Jan 24, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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President Obama greets troops at a rally during an unannounced visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Dec. 3, 2010.

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Back when he was a candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama won the support of many voters for his vocal stance against the Iraq War. But when he took the oath of office to become president, he inherited not only the Iraq conflict, but also a war in Afghanistan and the wider fight his predecessor called the "war on terror."

While Obama may have campaigned as a peace president, in the book The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama, author Stephen Carter argues that the president's war policies are very similar to those of former President George W. Bush. And, Carter says, by authorizing a troop surge in Afghanistan and stepped-up drone attacks in Pakistan, Obama's war policies have actually expanded beyond those of his predecessor.

To some degree, Carter writes, that's because Obama has found — like many presidents before him — that the practicalities of governing a nation at war are often at odds with the ideals he embraced as a candidate.

When it comes to making choices about national security, Carter writes, presidents are often forced "to pick from among several unappealing" options, something critics often fail to recognize.

"To the hater, the world is simple, not complex. The answers are obvious," writes Carter. But in reality, in wartime, even leaders as different as Obama and Bush "may see the world in roughly the same way."

Carter does credit Obama for doing something that too few of his predecessors have done — thinking carefully and reflectively about when the country should and shouldn't go to war.

Two years into the Obama presidency, Carter tells Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan, "it's a little too early to say there's an Obama Doctrine." But in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, Carter says Obama "did lay out a fairly clear and cogent argument for going to war, as he himself said, 'in the face of evil.' "

Carter says Obama's address in Oslo demonstrates that the president has appeared to have adopted at least some tenets of "just-war theory." That view recognizes that war can be justified, says Carter, but it must be a last resort, entered into only when there is a reasonable hope of success and waged using the minimum possible force.

"All of these are ways of thinking not about whether war is legal or illegal," says Carter, "but whether it's right or wrong."

But while Carter says Obama has demonstrated that he thinks carefully about war in the abstract, he also argues the president has done too little to fully explain his rationale for a war he has embraced — the war in Afghanistan.

Carter says Obama has described that war variously as "a war of self-defense," "the war that must be won," and "a war of necessity."

Back in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, Carter says, "it was envisioned then as a war of self-defense ... even sliding over to a kind of vengeance. The notion was, these people came and got us; we're going to go and make sure they can't do that again. ... All right. But now that was nine years ago, and we're still there ... Are we fighting the same people? Are we fighting different people?" Carter asks.

Carter believes that Obama owes the nation "a somewhat clearer definition of what would constitute winning [the war], and how we'll know whether we've won or not."

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The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama
By Stephen Carter
Hardcover, 272 pages
Beast Books
List price: $24.99

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