Michael H. Hunt: Obama and the War on Terror: Toward Greater Realism

Home and Abroad: U.S. Foreign Relations in Historical Perspective[This article is cross-posted from the author’s blog, On Washington and the World.]

I’ve been a regular consumer of Barack Obama’s public statements, looking for a window into his mind. To be sure, it’s a risky business. Speech writers always to some degree get in the way, and the statements themselves can be more responses to political exigencies than expressions of faith. But those statements are by default some of the best evidence we have on the president’s perspective. (We don’t get fairly full declassification of pertinent records until some three or four decades after the event.) Moreover, my experience over the years suggests that presidential speeches often line up reasonably well with internal discussions as revealed in later declassified documents.

I confess approaching with low expectations what was advertised as a speech on the controversial drone strikes. Most of Obama’s speeches on international issues have struck me as stale and vacuous, reflecting none of the subtlety and insight that he has shown himself occasionally capable in other areas of public concern.

Reading the address delivered 23 May at the National Defense University surprised me not just because it went well beyond the drone issue to address the conduct of the war on terror. More than that, Obama took some significant steps toward dealing with the war in terms of classical realism.

Responding to one realist proposition, Obama sought to carefully balance cost and benefit. The costs included notably the sacrifices made by members of the armed services and a massive diversion of material resources badly needed at home. Having rejected out of hand an open-ended prosecution of the war, he suggested that the lives, money, and effort invested so far had achieved significant results but had reached the point of diminishing value. Time to rebalance the commitment.

Responding to a second realist notion, Obama raised the relationship between ends and means—between U.S. goals and the methods used to realize those goals. The struggle to defend the homeland could undermine and distort vaunted American values. Practices such as detention, surveillance, and summary execution of citizens collided with ultimate U.S. goals. Similarly, while drones no less than special forces operations were attractive ways of striking at this particular enemy, the effect on the policies of states in the region and on public opinion could damage U.S. standing and prolong rather than shorten the conflict.

Alas, Obama’s realism has badly failed him on one major, difficult point—the very nature of the conflict that Americans call the war on terror. What a realist examination might suggest is, first of all, the current conflict that Obama along with most Americans conventionally imagine beginning on 9/11 is rooted in a long history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Any modern history of the region will trace in detail the pervasive pattern of U.S. intervention not to mention the resulting opposition. Read the words of Qutb and Khomeini onward to bin Laden on the close connection between U.S. actions and the resentment that has in turn bred resistance.

That resentment persists, fed by continued U.S. meddling in all sorts of ways in countries across the region. Obama’s speech leaves no doubt that the meddling must continue. The region has to work out its destiny not on its own terms but with U.S. guidance ranging from diplomacy to political, social, and cultural development and under the shadow of an extensively deployed U.S. armed forces. “Moderates” in particular need backing against “extremist elements” and “violent extremists” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, while Washington should help “modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship” in an echo of the old and troubled faith in nation building.

Obama, who may think his war is winding down, has failed as as realist in another way. He does not take the perspective and intentions of the enemy seriously. It may be comforting but not smart to write off the other side as a collection of deranged minds delighting in terror. This dismissive view does not alter the fact that the foe has resorted to resistance that military jargon describes as asymmetrical and that social sciences label as “the weapons of the weak.” Fighting the United States conventionally is a lost cause (ask Saddam Hussein), but random violence visited on the enemy population can be hard to counter.

Nor does stereotyping supply a good sense of the enemy’s commitment. The determination and sense of righteousness that matters in this war has come from various politicized forms of Islam. They have helped to inspire the dedication, solidarity, and sacrifice indispensable to sustained confrontation. Obama’s speech works hard to keep this insight at bay. It issues the usual denials that the Americans are at war with Islam and makes the predictable distinction between good Muslims who reject an ideology of violence and those led astray by the mistaken conviction “that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” Those on the wrong side of this imagined divide are hostile not because they have reason but because they are the product of “deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.”

Obama the realist can get only so far before lapsing into familiar clichés. Perhaps his imagination has constrained him or the politically loaded popular images of the enemy have intimidated him. Nonetheless he deserves credit for making significant progress toward a policy couched in more sensible terms. Let’s hope in time he and other policymakers will move toward a more realistic public assessment of the other side of the “global war on terror.” The first step might be to find another name for this conflict.


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.