I approach President Obama’s address to the nation Tuesday night as one whose interest in war is principally an interest in ethics. I am intrigued by arguments over what justifies a war, not in international law but in the language of morality. From that point of view, what was striking about Obama’s address was how Bush-like it was. Many might view this as a criticism of the president. But that is not my intention. When President Bush spoke about war, even when I disagreed with him, I was always impressed by the fundamental American-ness of his arguments, and by the unyielding commitment to the nation’s security that lay behind them. In Tuesday night’s address, Obama made three major points about the ethics of war, each an echo of his predecessor’s approach.
American presidents, whatever their espoused differences over any particular conflict, often converge when it comes to the details.
Point 1: “The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people.” Here, the president seems to move tantalizingly close to a proposition he has resisted since his days in the Senate: that the war in Iraq might just have been a just war after all. To be sure, the requirements of politics make it difficult to praise the armed forces if you truly believe the war that have been fighting has no justification—the slogan “I oppose the war but I support the troops” is harder to maintain ethically than it might appear—but still, the concession is a significant one, given Obama’s reluctance in the past to say anything to suggest that the coalition forces in Iraq might have been pursuing a mission of genuine moral importance.
More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s speech
• Ten Iraq War LegaciesPoint 2: Once the Iraqi regime was defeated, American troops “shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people; trained Iraqi security forces; and took out terrorist leaders.” It is the last clause that is fascinating: “took out terrorist leaders”—meaning, killed them. The president made a similar point in his eulogy this past February for the seven Central Intelligence Agency officers killed by a suicide bomber in Khost Province in Afghanistan. Praising the agency’s work, he referred to “the extremists who no longer threaten our country—because you eliminated them.” Among the most controversial aspects of Bush’s approach to the terror war was the proposition that America must get the terrorists before they get us. Obama has, in a sense, doubled down on this strategy. So, for example, his administration evidently makes far greater use of targeted missile attacks against accused terror leaders than Bush did.
Point 3: “American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power—including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example—to secure our interests and stand by our allies.” This is a rather direct channeling of his predecessor. If one reads the 2002 West Point commencement address in which Bush announced the doctrine named for him, one will find this very point, made more than once.
What has struck me in my years of writing and teaching about the ethics of war is that American presidents, whatever their espoused differences over any particular conflict, often converge when it comes to the details. History teaches that there is not a Democratic way of war or a Republican way of war. There is an American way of war, and it involves a steadfast confidence in the rightness of our cause, and a ferocity in the manner of pursuing it. Bush took that view; now, it seems, so does Obama. As to what this convergence portends for America’s future, we will have to wait and see.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. His seven nonfiction books include God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. His fourth novel, Jericho's Fall, was published in July; his next book, The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama, will be published in January by Perseus.