When War Trumps Reason

Reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars is giving me a headache.  The problem is not Woodward’s writing and reporting, which are first class as usual, but rather the story of Obama’s fall 2009 strategy review itself. His account shows a president who is deeply skeptical of military solutions. “I want an exit strategy,” the president insisted to his advisers. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how … we can reduce our military footprint.” Also expressing skepticism about the war were Vice President Joe Biden; Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke; the White House ‘war czar’ and senior adviser for Afghanistan, General Douglas Lute; and U.S. ambassador and former commanding general in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Yet Obama decided to send 30,000 additional troops. Having relied primarily on military advice, the president received only military options. The thrust of the discussion was not whether to send troops but how many and how fast. A sad reflection on the power of the Pentagon to shape presidential decision making and the way in which war imperatives can trump rational decision making.

I’m completing a new book, Ending Obama’s War, which outlines a plan for responsible military disengagement. Look for it early next year from Paradigm Publishers.

The influence of religious voices

Stalin is reported to have exclaimed “How many divisions does the pope have?” during World War II when Churchill raised the concerns of Polish Catholics. Moral issues and religious voices don’t count in international affairs, the tyrant contemptuously asserted. But moral values can play a significant role in shaping international policy, sometimes in surprising ways—as colleagues and I learned in a recent dinner conversation with a high ranking US diplomat.

Many people are aware of the landmark 1983 pastoral letter from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, The Challenge of Peace. George Kennan called it “the most profound and searching inquiry yet conducted by any responsible collective body” into the relations of nuclear weaponry and modern war. Ten years later, however, the bishops issued another letter, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, which attracted much less attention and seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Or did it?

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