Obama as a war president


If World War I was to be “the war to end all wars,” President Bush’s so-called war on terror was conceived as a war without end. Just days after Al Qaeda’s suicide airliner attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush declared that he would “rid the world of evildoers,” and Vice President Dick Cheney warned that the United States would fight indefinitely: “There’s not going to be an end date when we’re going to say, ‘There, it’s all over with.’ ”

Under this rubric, the administration prosecuted the war first in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda enjoyed the hospitality of the Taliban regime. Although not everyone bought into the concept of a war on terror, the international community was largely supportive. But then Bush turned his sights on Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and contacts with Al Qaeda. This time, the world was not persuaded, and the president had great difficulty finding allies.

Like Bush, President Obama may well have to decide whether or when to take the United States to war, and there are many lessons for him in Bush’s war on terror. The so-called Bush doctrine was articulated in a 2002 National Security Strategy, which stated that the U.S. would act against threats before they were fully formed: “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists. ...” In fact, the doctrine conflated two very different concepts: preemptive war and preventive war.


A preemptive war is a first strike against an enemy when an attack is believed to be imminent, a deterrent widely accepted as a form of self-defense. A preventive war, on the other hand, is one launched when a conflict appears to be inevitable but an attack is not necessarily imminent. This is far more controversial, seen by many as an act of aggression, which explains why Bush had trouble finding partners to go to war in Iraq. In fact, as the world discovered, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and it wasn’t until after the invasion that Iraq became another base for Al Qaeda -- a new arena for terrorism.

The first lesson for Obama is that a war against a concept, such as evil, or a tactic, such as terrorism, is going to be endless. The United States cannot afford and cannot win endless wars. It is true that for seven years the country has been spared another attack, and we assume the U.S. pursuit of Al Qaeda is at least partly to thank for that. But terrorism hasn’t been defeated; it is as widely used as ever. Second, Obama should reject the idea of preventive war, which is morally and legally questionable and opens the door for any powerful state to invade a weaker one.

It is possible that Obama will have to decide whether to launch a war of choice on humanitarian grounds, as President Clinton did to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Some argue that it is in the U.S. national interest to end starvation in Zimbabwe, anarchy in Somalia or genocide in Sudan. Democracy and stability even in countries as far away as Africa are good for the United States, because chaos is a breeding ground for extremists. And yet the reality is that war in Iraq and the global economic meltdown leave the U.S. with far fewer resources to intervene in such conflicts and make the country even more reliant on allies to come up with collective solutions.

In the event that Obama does take the country into another war, of any kind, he must define his goals more clearly than Bush did, must win international support and must articulate a strategy for victory. As former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has explained: When deciding whether to undertake a military mission, a leader must look forward to see whether, if all goes wrong, the United States would be better off than if it had not acted. Only if the answer is yes should Obama send U.S. forces into battle.