It's Not Too Late for Obama to Choose Between Being a Peace President and War President
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When the Nobel Committee awarded its annual peace prize to President Barack Obama, it afforded him a golden opportunity seldom offered to American war presidents: the possibility of success. Should he decide to go the peace-maker route, Obama stands a chance of really accomplishing something significant. On the other hand, history suggests that the path of war is a surefire loser. As president after president has discovered, especially since World War II, the U.S. military simply can't seal the deal on winning a war.
While the armed forces can do many things, the one thing that has generally escaped them is that ultimate endpoint: lasting victory. This might have been driven home recently -- had anyone noticed -- when, in the midst of the Washington debate over the Afghan War, a forgotten front in President Bush's Global War on Terror, the Philippines, popped back into the news. On September 25th, New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi wrote:
"Early this decade, American soldiers landed on the island of Basilan, here in the southern Philippines, to help root out the militant Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf. Now, Basilan's biggest towns, once overrun by Abu Sayyaf and criminal groups, have become safe enough that a local Avon lady trolls unworriedly for customers. Still, despite seven years of joint military missions and American development projects, much of the island outside main towns like Lamitan remains unsafe."
In attempting to explain the uneven progress of U.S. counterinsurgency operations against Muslim guerillas in the region after the better part of a decade, Onishi also noted, "Basilan, like many other Muslim and Christian areas in the southern Philippines, has a long history of political violence, clan warfare and corruption." While he remained silent about events prior to the 1990s, his newspaper had offered this reasonably rosy assessment of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts against Muslim guerrillas on the same island -- 100 years earlier:
"Detachments of the Twenty-third and Twenty-fifth Infantry, with constabulary and armed launches assisting, are engaged in disarming the Moros on Basilan Island. The troops are distributed around the coast and are co-operating in a series of closing-in movements."
Days after Onishi's report appeared, two American soldiers were killed on nearby Jolo Island. As a Reuters story noted, it "was the first deadly strike against U.S. forces deployed in the southern Philippines since a soldier in a restaurant was killed in 2002..." As in Basilan, however, the U.S. counterinsurgency story in Jolo actually goes back a long way. In early January 1905, to cite just one example, two members of the U.S. military -- the 14th Cavalry to be exact -- were killed during pacification operations on that same island.
That U.S. forces are attempting to defeat Muslim guerrillas on the same two tiny islands a century later should perhaps give President Obama pause as he weighs his options in Afghanistan and considers his recent award. It might also be worth his time to assess the military's record of success in conflicts since World War II, starting with the stalemate war in Korea that began in June 1950 and has yet to end in peace, let alone victory. That quiescent but unsettled conflict provides a ready-made opportunity for the president to achieve a triumph that has long escaped the U.S. military. He could help make a lasting peace on a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula and so begin earning his recent award.
Vietnam and Beyond
At the moment, Obama and his fellow Washington power-players are reportedly immersed in the literature of the Vietnam War in an attempt to use history as a divining rod for discovering a path forward in Afghanistan. At the Pentagon, many evidently still cling to the notion that the conflict was lost thanks to the weakness of public support in the U.S., pessimistic reporting by the media, and politicians without backbones.