Obama and the Pursuit of Endless War

When historians sit down decades from now to address the events of the early 21st century, they will have no trouble explaining why Americans elected Barack Obama president. They elected him out of a firm conviction that the United States was not involved in enough wars.

Problem solved. Today, American forces are fighting in four different countries.

No. 4 is Yemen, where we learn the administration is carrying out an intense covert campaign against anti-government militants, using fighter aircraft and drone missiles. It is being handled by the Pentagon in conjunction with the CIA, and according to The New York Times, “teams of American military and intelligence operatives have a command post in Sana, the Yemeni capital.”

Feel safer? Probably not. Most of what presidents do with the U.S. military is not aimed at enhancing the security or welfare of the American people. It serves mainly to advance our domination of the world, even — or maybe especially — in places irrelevant to any tangible interests. Like Yemen.

Or Libya — also known as War No. 3. Since March, the administration has been immersed in a grand humanitarian mission requiring us to deliver bombs on a regular basis. Obama’s stated goal was to prevent a mass slaughter he accused Moammar Gadhafi of plotting. But that pretext has given way to the real purpose: killing the dictator, pounding his regime into submission, or both.

No end is yet in sight, but an optimistic Defense Department official told the Times, “We are steadily but surely eroding his capacity.” If that statement is false, we have burned through $700 million on a futile offensive in a country that posed no threat.

But in this case, a pessimist is someone who thinks the optimists are right. If NATO is truly on the way to defeating Gadhafi, we will soon face the question: What next? Having demolished its government, we will suddenly inherit full responsibility for the fate of Libya and its people.

Piece of cake. I mean, look at how well things went in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, when victory gave way to violent chaos that killed thousands of American soldiers.

Or consider our record in trying to transform Afghanistan. The U.S. has 100,000 troops there, triple the number when Obama took office. Civilian officials and generals invariably assure us that our efforts are succeeding, but never quite well enough to allow our departure.

Despite our vaunted military prowess, generals say the gains are so “fragile and reversible” that we will have to stay for years to come. The Afghan regime is notoriously corrupt, incompetent and often hostile. But Ryan Crocker, nominated to be ambassador to Afghanistan, holds out the shimmering prospect that we can someday achieve a “good-enough government.”

Don’t we wish. An assessment released last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — which is controlled by members of Obama’s own party — found few encouraging results from our attempts to create a functioning polity and economy. “Insecurity, abject poverty, weak indigenous capacity and widespread corruption create challenges for spending money,” the report said.

Foreign assistance, it noted, accounts in one way or another for an astonishing 97 percent of the country’s economic activity. Our departure could mean “a severe economic depression.”

What’s the solution? Don’t leave. “Building governance is not something that’s going to happen in 18 months,” Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Voice of America. “And President Obama has said it’s a generational effort.”

That word “generational”? It’s what government officials use when they mean “eternal.”

The president doesn’t plan for us to be out of Afghanistan until 2014 — 13 years after we went in. He promised to start withdrawing this summer, but the Pentagon is resisting anything more than a minimal drawdown.

Likewise, despite our alleged success in Iraq, the administration is prepared to keep troops there as well, if the Baghdad government will agree. No worries: Leon Panetta, Obama’s incoming defense secretary, says he has “every confidence” that it will.

Given our torrential budget deficits, entering an era of fiscal austerity, how can we afford to fight all these wars? We can’t. But we’ll do it anyway.

You can stop wondering when the U.S. government will stop sending our battle-weary troops on endless deployments to police the globe. Country singer Blake Shelton laments, “The more I drink, the more I drink.” The more we fight, the more we fight.



Steve Chapman


Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

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