‘Whatever is necessary’: Obama defends war, again.

‘Whatever is necessary’: Obama defends war, again. June 24, 2010

I have commented twice now on Obama’s total commitment to war. (See: Obama defends eternal war as he accepts an award for peace and For the Record: Obama’s War or Obama’s Re-Election?) Since then, I have tried to stay away from the news cycle and focus my writing here on simpler things that convey alternatives to the scourge of politics.

But sometimes reality imposes itself on you. Yesterday, I found myself helplessly standing in front of a television set when Obama stepped-up to the podium to give his speech on the status of General McChrystal and the war in Afghanistan.

What I heard him say was not surprising, to be sure. It did remind me, however, why I protest his presidency—why I did not and will not vote for him.

The content of the speech was not aimed at McChrystal or Petraeus directly. It was primarily intended to downplay the shift in leadership and overplay the American theology of war. Here is a critical re-cap.

(Also, to those who often claim that Vox-Nova says nothing critical of Obama, here is proof to the contrary.)

Obama begins by celebrating the breadth of war itself: “…war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president.” Then, he celebrates his position as high priest: “I’ve got no greater honor than serving as Commander-in-Chief…” He continues these celebratory invocations with this: “America has the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

Then, he attaches this militaristic theology to the political theology of (liberal) democracy.

It is also true that our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command. And that’s why, as Commander-in-Chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy.

At this point he begins his commentary on Afghanistan. Regardless of what one thinks about the descriptive case of that war, Obama’s ethics are clearly consequentialist and misguided. He strongly claims—in a tone reminiscent of his predecessor: “I have a responsibility to do what is — whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”

Whatever is necessary? Really? This sick logic justifies a great deals of moral outrages, in this case the war in Afghanistan.

But there is more. Obama goes on to send a red meat, cowboyesque message to the American public: “We need to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere.”

Finally, there is an ironic, twisted ending. Regarding McChrystal, Obama says that “it saddens me to lose the service of a soldier who I’ve come to respect and admire.” Here, Obama cites the “loss” of this decorated general as a casualty of sorts.

Yet he never cited the growing death toll of soldiers and civilians. He never mourns those actually dead and dying.

Obama continues to show the incredible moral failure of his leadership.

Frequently, close friends of mine lecture me about this. They like to play the “wouldn’t so-and-so be worse” game. They like to pretend that the Republican liberal-capitalists are somehow cut from a different cloth than the Democrat ones. This might be a fun game, but I have no interest in playing.

Even if they are right—and sometimes I suspect they are—my feelings cash out something like this: if there is a significant difference between being kicked in the head with a steel toe boot vs. being clubbed by a lead pipe, then, regardless, I am not going to celebrate too much for the former.

I certainly won’t thank the boot for not being a pipe.

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  • Colin Gormley

    Mr. Rocha,

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on such claims as “Obama begins by celebrating the breadth of war itself.” given that by itself “celebrating” war doesn’t seem to come across. Perhaps more informatiin as to your thinking on this? Or are they referenced in the links you provide at the top (as the links themselves indicate criticisms of Obama rather than a more general critique of America war policy/culture)?


  • Colin:

    What I meant was very simple. I used that statement to serve as a descriptive preface to the actual statement: “…war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president.” In other words, Obama celebrates the “bigness” of war.

    Thanks for reading!


  • Mark Gordon

    I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. The Republicans and Democrats are two dead ends in the same blind alley. Or, to shift metaphors, you can have your neoliberal sundae with rainbow sprinkles and green-powered frosting (Democrats) or you can have it with pro-life chunks and patriotic sauce (Republicans). Either way, it ain’t ice cream on your spoon.

  • phosphorious

    I’m not sure that counts as a “celebration.”

    If I were to say “death will someday claim us all” I’m not celebrating the inevitability of death.

    But you’re broader point remains: Obama is not the pacifist I’d hoped for. Not by a long shot.

  • David Nickol

    But you’re broader point remains: Obama is not the pacifist I’d hoped for. Not by a long shot.

    I wonder how many Americans would like to have a pacifist as President of the United States. Turning the other cheek may be appropriate behavior for an individual, but it is not appropriate for a nation and its leaders.

  • jh

    “Whatever is necessary? Really? This sick logic justifies a great deals of moral outrages, in this case the war in Afghanistan.”

    I am not a huge fan of Obama but I think I know what he means. This rethoric of Hihg Priest as to his role as CIC (that is the Civilian head of the military) is unhelpful

    I really wish people would recognize what we are fighting. If we leave and the terrorist take over then American might in their rage want to make it “glass” if they are attacked. We have allies there and we have obligations. I see nothing in this theatre of war where the USA is mot acting ethical

  • Ryan Klassen


    Pacifism – turning the other cheek – is not doing nothing. It is just as committed to opposing evil but refuses to resort to violence. There is always a third way between violence and doing nothing. One could claim that this would be inappropriate for leaders and countries, but how can you say it’s not possible if it hasn’t been tried. What if you took the military budget of the US and devoted it to non-violent methods of conflict resolution?

  • Charles

    I share the deep disappointment you express. I have sometimes been enthused about politicians, other times regretted their election. But through my lifetime (and I am old at this point) they have been profoundly disappointing.

    Conservatives who read these words, please think of Reagan and “no negotiations with terrorists, no arms for hostages.” Liberals who read here, remember Clinton and “the end of welfare as we have known it,” and some other episodes.

    After decades of this, I try to feel less idealistic, less ambitious, more “the art of the possible.” And on this reduced level, I think this.

    Obama is definitely not unintelligent. And I don’t believe he personally feels affection for the violence of war. So, I suppose he is making a political calculation, in search of a working majority for policy as progressive as might be and still pass congress.

    Iraq may return to dictatorship. Afghanistan may return to the taliban. I am not sure what we can do that we are not already doing, to prevent these things. Perhaps we live in a world where we should accept these things, or at least not take up arms against them. If we do end up losing these battles, then I think most of us would conclude, we ought not have started. But even in this “worst case,” we never do have the knowledge of how it will end, beforehand, so we can’t really base our decision now on that. WWII showed us no grounds for optimism when we entered the fray.

    All in all, I thank you for your post.

  • Really, David? I’m pretty sure that whatever justification for war you have in mind that makes it appropriate for leaders – that probably also applies to individuals. Could you expound on what the difference is?

  • Matt Bowman

    I commend your post Sam. I have never thought the US had an interest fighting these wars of occupation.
    If Obama is as bad as it gets on life issues (he is), and he is at least the same as Republicans on war and related issues, what’s left to offset negatives for politically active Catholics? Obama barely broke into the net positive column even by liberal Catholic standards, which included counting war as a point in his favor, not to mention ignoring most practical life policy issues along the lines of UN abortion stridency and DC abortion funding to just scratch the surface.

    As for VN, I’ve personally pointed out several times the minority of VN’s contributors who have visibly posted columns taking pro-life stands, but unfortunately you don’t have Mickey on your blogroll anymore, so the unanimity and increasing stridency of the core leaders here in not only not criticizing but in defending Democrat efforts hurting the preborn is even more loudly drowning out what little is left. Where is the post here vocally calling this blog’s party and its liberal Catholic allies to lobby for H.R. 5111? Instead it’s attack attack against pro-lifers. A stray comment here and there from contributors is welcome but doesn’t change the 95% effect.

  • Thanks to the all the commentators.

    I’d like to reply to Matt Bowman:

    I have a few quibbles with your remarks. The first might seem petty, but I will raise it just to be clear: “war and related issues” are “life issues.” There is no distinction to be made.

    Secondly, the idea that “taking pro-life stands” is an exceptional thing to be found here is very hard for me to understand. I am not sure there is a strong “leadership” at this site other than more or less frequent posting by contributors. Now, if my work here has been reduced to “stray comments,” then, you might want to look at just how many “strays” have accumulated. (You can do this very easily by clicking on my name and reading my stray posts over the past year or so.) At what quantitative point do they cease to be “strays”?

    Finally, while the balance of things here is attached to a particular orientation to discourse—that brings out a consistent critique of how a particular sect of Catholics address issues of life—what I find strangely comforting is this: We generally agree on politics insofar as we reject the basics of liberalism—individualism and secularism. We also reject the toxic elixirs of our time: relativism and fundamentalism. In other words, there are no stray, random comments that fly around as a throw-away minority here, as I see it. Everything is framed around this basic—albeit complex—consensus.

    But maybe I am just being defensive. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that I am stray pet here. Whatever the case may be, Vox-Nova is NOT the representation one might find at Catholics for Choice. We seem to be more like what one might find in the Spanish political party, Solidaridad, whose slogan is “rechazamos el aborto porque somos de la izquierda” (“We reject abortion because we are of the left”).

    Peace and Good,


  • Matt Bowman

    Sam–I don’t want to hijak the thread, so I will just say I appreciate your defense and I think it has merits to it, but there are also legitimate distinctions in certain contexts, not chasmic divisions mind you, between issues related to killing the preborn and issues related to international military force–in other words, you talking about non-abortion-related life issues doesn’t offset the qualitative effect of how others here overwhelmingly talk about abortion-related life issues.

    Back on topic, look today at Michael Sean Winters’ post on Obama’s foreign policy. True, he respectfully highlights liberal criticism of Obama, *and then goes on to disagree with the criticism precisely in defense of Obama’s continued use of American military force abroad*. Winters says the President should be given “credit” for “staring down” the “part of his political base” that opposes more use of American force abroad. Winters defends interventionism qua international use of military force in the “struggles for freedom around the globe.” Liberal Catholic Wilsonianism lives.

    One result is that the 2008 election was between Bush vs. Bush on war, middle of the road pro-life vs. aggressively pro-abortion with massive practical effects, and big spending financial policy at home vs. slightly less big spending policy at home. How could category 3 offset category 2, especially without category 1?

  • Thanks for keeping me on topic, Matt.

    Maybe we can have some discussion about the first piece some other time. I, too, appreciate—and, of course, disagree with—your rebuttal.

    As for the categories you offered, I see then a bit differently. I saw the 2008 election as Bush vs. Bush in all three categories: (1) Bush and Obama are both committed to war; (2) Bush and Obama both have refused to address the issue of abortion at its basic cultural, physical, and spiritual root; (3) Bush and Obama—and their party’s—spend like crazy. As a result we are likely to see this: (1) We will continue to be at war; (2) abortion rates (and more) will go up and down invariably, but will remain a nasty, patriarchal “fix” for a deep human problem; (3) we will continue to put our faith in economics. BONUS: Executive power will only increase, never decrease.

    This is not surprising since both parties are bought and paid for by largely the same money. The fact that different people vote for them obfuscates the more nefarious reality: suffrage in this country is driven more by corporate pocketbooks than by voting booths.

    In 2008 I voted for a socialist—Brian Moore—because I saw no offsetting in the petty differences between McCain and Obama. I think history will see things in the same way between Obama and his predecessor.

    Thanks, again, for your engaging—and disciplined!—remarks.


  • Kurt

    In 2008 I voted for a socialist—Brian Moore…

    While I didn’t vote for him, I believe I once received communion from him when he was a Eucharistic Minister at a Mass I attended.

  • Matt Bowman

    I think there’s an additional possible element of consensus on the interventionism issue. Conservative critiques of American militaristic internationalism aren’t pacifist, but they are firmly modest with strict limits on American interests and opposition to American imperialism. There’s a lot there for liberal and conservative Catholics to agree on as a practical political matter. Which is why it’s so troubling for Winters to embrace Wilsonianism. It would be one thing for Kmiec, Cafardi, Kaveny and Korzen to say, gee we were wrong I guess Obama is a militaristic interventionist after all. It is quite another for liberal Catholics to say that Wilsonianism is actually the (liberal) Catholic position as long as you aim it at the proper targets to insure you’re spreading freedom and goodness (and to ensure that the war you are defending is being waged by a Democrat instead of by a Republican). War isn’t neutralized as a Catholic campaign issue merely due to occurrence of Rs and Ds having the same position: it’s neutralized because some liberal Catholics are on the interventionist bandwagon.

  • digbydolben

    Charles, I was one of those commentators here who supported Obama because of what I assumed was his “just war” inclination regarding such issues as “torture,” “extraordinary renditions,” and the “unitary executive” theory of the American Presidency. I also wanted something done about the American health care system, although, as a perennial expatriate, I cared more about foreign policy matters and the so-called “war on terror.” Also, I thought Obama could be reasoned with regarding abortion–that he’d go along with the Hillary Clinton idea that the best way to oppose American abortion practice was to work to make abortion “rare,” even if legal.

    I confess here, publicly, that I was dead-wrong.

    I do not now oppose Obama because I think he ought to become a “pacifist” and withdraw from Afghanistan to placate the left. In fact, I support Vice President Biden’s notion of treating al Qaeda and the Taliban like mere criminals, and responding with devestating force to their depredations–rather than occupying the country.

    My reason for renouncing my previous support for Obama is that I believe he probably has heard and understood the advice of such as the brilliant British Parlimentarian, Rory Stewart (who was once the British governor of Basra, in Iraq), who have told him that the war is unwinnable. However, in order to cover his ass against the political attacks of “conservatives” (read neo-fascist, “neo-conservative” and Zionist lobbyists) in America, he is sacrificing the lives of American servicemen and women to protect his political flank in upcoming elections.

    He is well-read, intelligent and politically cunning. He knows the history of “counter-insurgency” movements in the 20th century, and probably has been told much about the morass that Afghanistan is and always was for invaders and occupiers. He knows he will be withdrawing in a year, and that he’s losing lives pointlessly. I just hope that General Petraeus has the decency to refuse to provide “cover” for this heinous and deeply immoral policy of his.

  • digbydolben

    And all who doubt it’s “unwinnable” need to read THIS

  • Matt: I agree. As you well know, I find the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as you are using them problematic, but I do understand what you mean. And you’re right: Any—and I do mean ANY—Catholic who thinks that Obama’s position on war is somehow salvageable is as deluded as those (e.g. Weigel, et al) who came to Bush’s defense on Iraq part deux.

    dingbydolben: Your truthful comment only adds to this small, and rare, consensus we have come to here.

    The only haunting thing about it is the silence from the—to risk putting it bluntly and uncharitably—the usual suspects who like to fly in and root for their political flavor du jour, no matter what.

  • By the way: I do not protest Obama’s presidency because he has betrayed the left. I oppose his presidency because he has betrayed humanity. War, as John Paul II put it, is a defeat for humanity.

    • For the record, many of the writers on Vox Nova have consistently criticized Obama on war.

  • Matt Bowman

    Henry I am glad to hear of it. Did that criticism exist before the election? Or during the election did those same critics join Kmiec et al. in urging Obama as the Catholic choice because, among other things, he was supposedly different than Bush on war issues? Now that war is no longer an asset in his Catholic ledger to offset his position on abortion, will those Obama critics still view him as the best overall choice for Catholics, and if how will they crunch those numbers? By minimizing the significance of promoting abortion overseas and paying for it in DC and prosecuting nonviolent sit-ins as federal felons etc etc etc? By praising interventionism as the pursuit of justice rather than the destruction of it, a la Winters? By just considering social welfare expansion to outweigh abortion exascerbating policies no matter how many are documented? Or might the calculus change?

  • Matt Bowman

    After my last post I saw this and it reinforces the topic of this thread. Sorry it’s from what you may consider the evil FoxNews, which is reporting that “Troops on the ground and some military commanders have said the strict rules — aimed at preventing civilian casualties — have effectively forced the troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. The military source who has talked with Petraeus said the general will make those changes. Other sources were not so sure, but said they wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen once Petraeus takes command.”

    Meanwhile I turn to my email inbox a few minutes ago and find Commonweal enticing me to read its new article trumpeting its view that McCrystal had to go. So while Petraeus may expand civilian casulties, liberal Catholic publications Commonweal and America courageously stand up to praise their chosen president.

    What Chesterton said about patriotism is even more true about Catholic partisanship: “‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'”

  • Great piece… although I tend to agree with Mark Gordon (great metaphor, by the way); both parties are dead ends. The need for viable third and fourth party candidates is WAY overdue! It’s oversimplifying, but what if everyone concerned with social justice flat out refused to vote either Dem or Rep?

    • M.Z.

      but what if everyone concerned with social justice flat out refused to vote either Dem or Rep?
      No one would care.

      The need for viable third and fourth party candidates is WAY overdue!
      What makes you think a 3rd or 4th choice would be any better than the 1st and 2nd? We do not have a parliamentary system. Even places with parliamentary systems can have issues of representation. There is too much faith of a silent majority waiting to be realized.

  • digbydolben

    Can American patriotism and faithfulness to Christian Sacred Scripture and the social justice teachings of the Catholic and Apostolic Church be reconciled?

    And, if they can’t be, what are the duties and responsibilities of American Catholics? How are we to live?

    And, in particular, how are we to live and cooperate with the majority, our Protestant brothers and sisters, knowing, as we do, that their primary theological tendencies are heretical–that they contribute to despair regarding the natural world (i.e. never seeing it as “incarnational”) which, in turn, contributes to pursuit of relentless individualism in politics?

    Are we to stand by and merely pray for some sort of “conversion,” as we watch the depredations being visited upon whole societies and the natural world, or are we to withdraw and refuse to cooperate with the building holocaust?

  • I think that one must remember that the Church and our country or sovereign have two different sets of responsibilities. The Church has a responsibility to be communal, promote the common good, peace, social justice, peace etc. whereas the sovereign has an obligation to maintain our national security, balance the budget, adhere to the Constitution, and be responsible about the deficit, etc. Some people like to make the government like a God or Church, replacing the role of the Church or the obligations that the Church has for its people. Yes, governmnent can help, and I have no problem with that but once an organization becomes reliant on the government then it seems like the Church’s hospitals and other organizations relinquish their responsiblity (to some extent) over to the State.

    With the strategy that is being implemented now I don’t think that we can win the war in Afghanistan but if we change the strategy we will have a good chance of finishing the war for the reasons we started the war- stop Islamic terrorists Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I think we need to kill our enemy and get out of Afghanistan. Helping the corrupt Karzai with nation-building is a lost cause. As much as I would like us to help the people in Afghanistan improve their way of life I don’t think we can justify having our troops stay in Afghanistan with Karzai in power. Maybe if he was replaced?

    I have called Vox Nova liberal but haven’t said that you haven’t criticized the President. I have seen you criticize his war policies ( but that may be the only policy I have seen you take issue with) but would expect that since most liberals and libertarians are against war, even when war is a necessity. The moderator’s writings here on Vox Nova (for the most part) strictly adhere to a modern liberal philosophy (the meaning of liberalism has changed over the years). I don’t mind that but I do hate when I am ridiculed for my conservative beliefs or (I have a differing opinion) and certain moderators take part in ad hominem attacks without even debating the issues when I challenge their ideas. I am all for debating and differences of opinion but some moderators at Vox Nova seem to discourage that type of debate.

    God Bless!

  • digbydolben

    Folks, if Obama won’t do anything to stop colonialism, YOU can: