The Violence of Peace:
America’s Wars in the Age of Obama
By Stephen L. Carter
Beast Books, 272 pages
Conventional wisdom among Barack Obama’s enthusiasts and detractors alike holds that in foreign affairs the president has adopted, sometimes reluctantly, many elements of the Bush Doctrine. The troop surge in Afghanistan, the continued functioning of the Guantánamo Bay detainment facility, a commitment to war tribunals for terror suspects, a three-fold increase in drone strikes on Pakistani targets, and the pursuit and, most dramatically, the killing of Osama bin Laden are just a few examples of national security continuity between the two administrations. But as the Bush Doctrine was itself widely mischaracterized, comparisons with the far murkier Obama Doctrine have sometimes been politically useful but rarely edifying.
Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter hopes to change that. In The Violence of Peace, an analysis of Obama’s (and Bush’s) military programs, Carter provides the first in-depth evaluation of our 44th president at war.
A contrarian best known for his popular academic books on the intersection of religion and American society, Carter applies his expertise in just war theory to the intractable legal and ethical problems afflicting the war on terror. Both Obama and Bush, he argues, have significantly expanded the customary concepts of jus ad bellum (the just initiation of combat) and jus in bello (the just prosecution of war).
Carter is neither a Bush sentimentalist nor a slack-jawed Obama worshiper. While he contends that Obama is fighting our wars “with a stunning ferocity” that “presses the boundaries of the traditional understanding of the just war,” he is also “surprised and a bit depressed to discover how many quite thoughtful people are so steeped in a hatred of President Bush that the merest suggestion that President Obama has followed any of his policies, on any matter, is considered an insult to Obama.”
In Carter’s view, “at the heart of the just-war tradition is the belief that evil exists in the world, and must be combated. Not merely other ways of seeing reality, or other points of view, but actual evil.” He maintains that both Bush and Obama frame matters along those lines. Indeed, in many ways, the differences between Bush’s and Obama’s war rhetoric, says the author, are those of degree, not kind. While Bush forthrightly denounced the “Axis of Evil” and named and shamed regimes richly deserving of inclusion, Obama obliquely asserted in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm: “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
As Carter sees it, this belief is consistent with Obama’s previous pronouncements on the issue. In the 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention that foisted Obama onto the national stage, the then Senate candidate acknowledged the importance of defending the homeland: “Let me be clear. We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued. And they must be defeated.” Indeed, Obama backed word with deed on May 1, when SEAL Team 6 executed its deadly assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—an event that transpired several months after The Violence of Peace went to print.
Yet Obama, like Bush before him, ran a presidential campaign based on relative military quiescence. For Obama, this was centered on ending the Iraq war. And in 2000, Bush promised a “modest” foreign policy, a promise he (wisely) broke after the inferno of 9/11. But, as Carter succinctly puts it, “no peace candidate has ever become a peace president.” He claims that “a friend of mine in a position to know” told him that Obama and company were “ ‘stunned’ by the threats spread before them at their first postelection briefings on national security.”
Indeed, identifying the line between imminent and latent threats is often not an exact science but a high-risk art. Carter astutely notes the hyperbole in Obama’s much-vaunted distinction between our war of choice in Iraq and our defensive invasion of Afghanistan. When the U.S. launched its assault on al Qaeda and the Taliban in late 2001, the country was not technically facing imminent threats from either group. But Carter, for his part, is a bit too technical on the question of imminence. The Afghan war was “at best, of the preemptive variety, and possibly of the preventive variety.” Thus, Carter argues that both Bush and Obama have stretched the traditional notion of self-defense to encompass proactively, preemptively, and even preventatively “tak[ing] the battle to the enemy.” He would have done well to recall that al Qaeda and the Taliban took the battle to New York and Washington, D.C., weeks before the U.S. invasion.
That important detail should have fit naturally into what Carter calls the “American Proviso” to the just-war theory, namely, that “attacking America is morally different from being attacked by America.” It is Carter’s belief, in fact, that Obama clings to the American Proviso. He notes as evidence that Obama, like all his predecessors, has declined to ratify the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, an amendment adopted by most other countries that would assign to terrorists and other irregular armies the rights enjoyed by properly uniformed armed forces.
That seems like flimsy confirmation because it is. The Violence of Peace suffers from an omission so large and glaring that it swells with every chapter to become the elephant on the page: whether, for all his rhetoric about maintaining our robust defensive wars, Obama actually believes in this stuff.
When Obama publicly discusses the war on terror (or our “Overseas Contingency Operation”), his lack of passion is telling, at least in comparison with his fiery speeches on government-run health care, entitlement reform, or other pet domestic concerns. Either Obama genuinely believes in the American Proviso and downplays it to avoid alienating his liberal base, or, more likely, he halfheartedly mouths and practices the maxims of just-war theory by rote. He may say these things because he feels that he must, but he makes it very hard to believe he authentically accepts their implications.
Obama the commander in chief is characterized foremost by a nagging disconnect between his true beliefs and his actions in matters martial. As policies play out, that disconnect can manifest as crippling incoherence. He authorized 30,000 additional troops to ramp up the war in Afghanistan while simultaneously issuing a save-the-date notice for complete American withdrawal. More recently, he demanded that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi end his ghastly reign, but then authorized U.S. military involvement in a NATO operation to pursue an ill-defined and less audacious mission.
Carter alludes to this tendency when he observes that “for reasons that are not clear, Obama rarely speaks of victory. . . . If these are unjust wars, then President Obama should stop prosecuting them, immediately, not at some promised future date. If on the other hand they are just wars, then he should articulate a moral obligation to prevail” (my emphasis). Sure enough, even in the aftermath of bin Laden’s demise—unquestionably the crowning national- security achievement of Obama’s presidency—the president and his administration evinced an acute discomfort with the implications of this victory, declining to release photographic evidence of the al Qaeda leader’s corpse and awkwardly defending the SEALS’ decision to kill an “unarmed” man.
Yet Carter’s “reasons that are not clear” formulation is not merely a dodge; it is a dereliction of authorial duty. Admittedly, it would be difficult for him to examine Obama’s inner thoughts on these matters, but it should not be beyond his abilities.
Carter evokes Bush’s military confidence in Obamaspeak cadence when he writes, “there is not a Bush way to fight, adopted by Obama; there is an American way to fight, common to many of the nation’s wars, adopted by them both. Put most simply, we fight to win.” The point itself is both nuanced and bold, which makes it hard to accept Carter’s failure to take the full measure of the man now charged with leading the fight.