The deliberately vague language of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 that cited newly elected President Barack Obama for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” was notable for having confused words with deeds, but it has fared even more poorly in the three years since, because we now know that President Obama collects wars the way his wife collects taxpayer-funded vacations. Fortunately for the reputations of the five Norwegians on the Peace Prize committee and anyone not directly affected by what was described as “kinetic military action” against Libya, President Obama starts more wars with domestic opponents than with foreign ones. Republican lawmakers get less of a hearing from this president than foreign dignitaries do.
Ordering American troops home from Iraq was praiseworthy but inevitable. Elsewhere in the same region, President Obama’s use of drone aircraft against enemy combatants has been more aggressive than anything his predecessor authorized, and the ongoing drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan has been complicated by rules of engagement that prolong war rather than shortening it. As many people have pointed out but Daniel Greenfield was most eloquent in explaining, “The American soldier in the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is expected to patrol and retreat, to smile and reach out to the Afghans while they shoot him in the back.” American sensitivity to Muslim concerns is such that just this past week, U.S. Marines in Afghanistan who gathered to listen to remarks by the Secretary of Defense were given an unprecedented order to disarm themselves for that meeting, presumably as a show of solidarity with Afghan allies who already abide by that rule.
Special Forces operators have fewer constraints than other soldiers do, but because the president neither understands the U.S. military nor expects a significant number of votes from the people who serve in it, their successful missions are publicized in something alarmingly close to real time, with an eye on news cycle management rather than operational security. Any shooting war that Americans fight now brings a cold war piggybacking with it, because Barack Obama disdains warriors, even — or perhaps especially — those warriors under his command. Michelle Obama, herself leading a “war on childhood obesity,” has tried to be sensitive to military families, but the only martial vocabulary her husband can muster is for cameras or campaign staffers, as when saying he wants to know “whose ass to kick,” or asking fellow Democrats to “get in your neighbor’s faces.”
In short, Barack Obama wages war on disfavored groups of citizens, and on the English language. He is an artful dodger, as even his fans acknowledge, and never more likely to lie than after saying “Let me be clear.” As the Catholic bishops of America have belatedly learned, his definition of “accommodation,” like his definition of “compromise,” amounts to “I won.” The president says “nuclear” without a hitch, but talks of “Pakistan” as though faculty lounge chitchat had placed an “o” in that country’s name. In meetings with the prime minister of Israel, “I’ve got your back” means “Don’t do anything that might mess up my bid for re-election.” More significantly, Barack Obama’s blame diffusion strategy has been honed to perfection: he uses first person plural to speak of anything distressing, and first person singular everywhere else. Thus, “we learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them,” but “I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
What separates war in the context of what this essay asserts from the ordinary arguments with opponents that are the bread and butter of any politician’s career is its sustained character and its willingness to commandeer several of the resources available to the man behind the world’s best-known “bully pulpit.” In describing this president as “unflappable,” much of the press corps missed the obvious point that Barack Obama is unflappable around people who agree with him, and remarkably bellicose otherwise.
Barack Obama and his surrogates have picked fights with Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona and with teachers striving to educate minority students, but neither presidential petulance on the tarmac in front of Air Force One nor fretting about the suspension rates of African-American children meets the definition of “war.” On the other hand, frequent reference to the failings of the previous administration and repeated attempts to redefine the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause are markers that tell us a lot. Bob Woodward’s book on Obama’s wars was not as comprehensive as it could have been.
No one accusing our current president of war-mongering could fail to mention his institutionalized harassment of the separation of powers doctrine that undergirds our Constitution and shaped the debate over its ratification. On the evidence of edicts from the HHS, the IRS, the USDA, the EPA, and the Oval Office itself, Barack Obama seems more comfortable with imperial power than with running one of three coequal branches of federal government. That those edicts are supposed to promote such goods as health care, licensing, nutritious food, and clean air matters not at all when they also subvert due process and legislative review to thwart conscience, kill jobs, injure freedoms, and reward particular industries. That assessment might sound harsh, but it echoes the judgment of no fewer than 29 state attorneys general, all of whom are currently suing the federal government for overstepping its bounds.
Many people remember that Bill Clinton maintained a “war room” when he was president, yet strategizing there had mostly to do with finding ways for Clinton to finesse his way past recurring “bimbo eruptions.” President Obama’s grievance-based and entitlement-driven ire is more generalized than anything that angered his predecessors, which is why he skipped the relative simplicity of writing up an Enemies List or attempting to pack the Supreme Court, and went straight to the deployment of “Truth Teams.” That is the kind of thing that happens when you have a hazy memory of wars being won “by generals who get there first with the most,” but it drags the Oval Office into ward-level politics while shaming Peace Prize grandees and anyone else wide-eyed enough to believe that this president is above the fray.