“America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.” That is the line from President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan that marks the decisive moral shift as well as policy shift we have been looking for. No more endless war.
“Endless war” was the policy of the previous administration. War for war’s sake. War without end. The “war on terror” that had no definite enemies, no defined measure of success, and above all, no exit strategy. American foreign policy under President George W. Bush became war. Period.
As pundits pick over President Obama’s speech, they focus on the number of troops or the limited scope of what was said about Pakistan. They ridicule the timetable for withdrawal, caricaturing it as “surge and get out,” and miss the big picture. President Obama said Tuesday night, “The days of providing a blank check are over.” In other words, the U.S. should perform certain tasks and then get out of Afghanistan. We will not pursue nor pay for this war indefinitely.
Republicans who spent a trillion dollars on two wars in less than a decade have trouble with that kind of fiscal responsibility and that more precise understanding of mission. John McCain, who during the presidential campaign said before 200 people that he would have no trouble with the U.S. being in Iraq for “100 years,” completely missed this decisive policy shift in his recent critical remarks on the current President’s approach to Afghanistan.
President Obama gets the moral issues, and the big change in his Afghanistan speech is the change in the moral understanding of war. The U.S. will no longer pursue a policy of endless war.
There may be reasons that justify going to war. If going to war is ever justified, it is for very specific and limited reasons. These reasons are self-defense or defense of the “vulnerable other” as St. Augustine said.
The U.S. began the war in Afghanistan because we were attacked and the attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, whom the Afghan Taliban were harboring. More attacks on the U.S., as well as other countries, the President indicated, are still being planned from points in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and attempts are being made to carry them out, even today. Furthermore, as a nuclear-armed Pakistan is now more than peripherally involved in this regional struggle, the stakes in regard to self-defense have gotten considerably higher.
The vulnerable others are the civilians in Afghanistan, the victims of armed conflict, conflict over which they have little or no control and most often no defense. Are we going to just walk away from them without a good faith effort to train their own army and police force to defend them? Where is the justice in that?
But there is no justification for endless war. Endless war is machine war, the robotic pursuit of violence as a solution to every difficulty we face. Endless war as a policy is immoral because it is unlimited in scope, unreasoning in its pursuit, and it has no end but the pursuit of more war.
And that is what President Obama rejected Tuesday night. And good for him.