Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 as a peace candidate. He signaled that he would fundamentally change America’s course after the reckless carnage unleashed by the George W. Bush administration. However, by the end of Obama’s presidency, the United States was bombing seven different foreign nations.
But Obama’s warring rarely evoked the protests or opposition that the Bush administration generated. Why did so many Bush-era anti-war activists abandon the cause after Obama took office?
One explanation is that the news media downplayed Obama’s killings abroad. Shortly after he took office, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — not because of anything that he had achieved, but because of the sentiments he had expressed. Shortly after he accepted the Peace Prize, he announced that he would sharply increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Much of the media treated Obama’s surge as if it were simply a military campaign designed to ensure that the rights of Afghan women were respected. The fact that more than 2,000 American troops died in Afghanistan on Obama’s watch received far less attention in the press than did the casualties from Bush’s Iraq war.
In early 2011, popular uprisings in several Arab nations spurred a hope that democracy would soon flourish across North Africa and much of the Middle East. Violent protests in Libya soon threatened the long-term regime of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who had become a U.S. ally and supporter in recent years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other advisors persuaded Obama to forcibly intervene in what appeared to be a civil war.
In March 2011, Obama told Americans that “the democratic values that we stand for would be overrun” if the United States did not join the French and British assault on the Libyan government. Obama declared that one goal of the U.S. attack was “the transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people.” Qaddafi, who was dealing with uprisings across the nation, sent Obama a personal message: “As you know too well, democracy and building of civil society cannot be achieved by means of missiles and aircraft, or by backing armed members of al-Qaeda in Benghazi.”
Even before the United States began bombing Libya, there was no sober reason to expect that toppling Qaddafi would result in a triumph of popular sovereignty. Some of the rebel groups had been slaughtering civilians; black Africans whom Qaddafi had brought into Libya as guest workers were especially targeted to be massacred. Some of Qaddafi’s most dangerous opponents were groups that the United States had officially labeled as terrorists.
Obama decided that bringing democracy to Libya was more important than obeying U.S. law. The War Powers Act, passed by Congress in 1973 in the waning days of the Vietnam War, requires presidents to terminate military attacks abroad after 60 days unless Congress specifically approves the intervention. Immediately after the bombing commenced, Secretary of State Clinton declared during a classified briefing for members of Congress that “the White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission.” Echoing the Bush administration the Obama administration indicated that congressional restraints would be “an unconstitutional encroachment on executive power.”
According to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Obama “had the constitutional authority” to attack Libya “because he could reasonably determine that such use of force was in the national interest.” Apparently, as long as presidential advisors concluded that attacking foreigners is in the U.S. “national interest,” the president’s warring passes muster — at least according to his lawyers. Yale professors Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway lamented that “history will say that the War Powers Act was condemned to a quiet death by a president who had solemnly pledged, on the campaign trail, to put an end to indiscriminate warmaking.”
The U.S. attack on Libya evoked almost no protests across the nation. After Qaddafi was killed, Secretary Clinton laughed during a television interview celebrating his demise: “We came, we saw, he died.” But U.S. missiles and bombs begat chaos, not freedom. Five years later, when asked what was the worst mistake of his presidency, Obama replied, “Probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”
In 2013, Obama decided to attack the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Obama team alleged that the Assad regime had carried out a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.
A front-page Washington Post headline blared, “Proof Against Assad at Hand.” But that hand remained hidden. On a Sunday talk show, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough admitted that the administration lacked evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” proving that the Syrian regime had carried out the gas attack. But McDonough asserted, “The common-sense test says [Assad] is responsible for this. He should be held to account.” Obama administration officials also insisted that attacking Syria would boost American “credibility.” But unless “credibility” is defined solely as assuring the world that the president of the United States can kill foreigners on a whim, that is a poor bet. This type of credibility is more appropriate for a drunken brawl in a bar than for international relations.
The administration never provided solid evidence to back up its claim. Even Obama ally Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) characterized the evidence presented in a Capitol Hill classified briefing as “circumstantial.” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) commented, “The evidence is not as strong as the public statements that the president and the administration have been making. There are some things that are being embellished in the public statements. The [classified] briefings have actually made me more skeptical about the situation.”
Seeking to rally the nation behind the cause, Obama called on Congress to authorize bombing Syria. But the American people had little stomach for another adventure abroad. There were a few protests — including one outside the White House on the Saturday when Obama was expected to announce that he had commenced bombing. I was there that day, along with a smattering of conservative and libertarian opponents to another war. The protest was a bit anemic until a couple busloads of ANSWER Coalition activists arrived from Baltimore. They had great signs — “Bombing Syria Doesn’t Protect People — It Kills Them” —and they marched and chanted in unison better than most high-school bands. The U.S. Park Police were unhappy with the protest and rode their horses into the middle of the group. Federal officials came up and threatened to arrest anyone who did not clear away from the street behind the White House. A handful of arrests were made and the crowd simmered down.
But when Obama made his a radio speech to the nation that afternoon, the chanting from the protest could be heard in the background. Obama announced that he was postponing a decision on bombing.
However, in the summer of 2014, the ISIS terrorist group released videos of the beheading of hostages. That provided sufficient cover for Obama to commence bombing that group — and other targets in Syria. The media played its usual lapdog role. A Washington Post headline proclaimed, “Obama the reluctant warrior, cautiously selling a new fight.” So we’re supposed to think the president is a victim of cruel necessity, or what? A New York Times headline announced, “In Airstrikes, U.S. Targets Militant Cell Said to Plot an Attack Against the West.” “Said to” is the perfect term — perhaps sufficient to alert non-brain-dead readers that something may be missing (e.g., evidence). By mid 2016, the Obama administration had dropped almost 50,000 bombs on ISIS forces (or civilians wrongly suspected to be ISIS fighters) in Syria and Iraq. A September 2016 Daily Beast article noted, “In January, the Pentagon admitted to bombing civilians on at least 14 different occasions. In July, an off-target airstrike in northern Syria killed more than 60 people.”
Obama acted as if he was doing God’s work by again bombing the Middle East. But the supposed beneficiaries were not persuaded. On the eve of the 2016 U.S. November election, independent journalist Rania Khalek (who was visiting Syria) tweeted, “I’ve been asking Syrians who they want to win for president. The vast majority say Trump because they feel he’s less likely to bomb them.” Presidential rhetoric was not sufficient compensation for the lives and homes that would be destroyed by the increased onslaughts that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton seemed to promise.
Anti-war or anti-Republican?
Thousands of innocent foreigners were killed by U.S. bombings and drone attacks during the Obama administration. In his 2016 State of the Union address, Obama scoffed at “calls to carpet bomb civilians.” Perhaps he considered it far more prudent to blow up wedding parties instead (as happened during his reign in Yemen and Afghanistan). As long as White House or Pentagon spokesmen announced that the United States was using “precision bombing,” media controversy over innocent victims was blunted, if not completely avoided.
Why did Obama suffer far less backlash than George W. Bush? Salon columnist David Sirota summarized an academic study released in 2013: “Evaluating surveys of more than 5,300 anti-war protestors from 2007 to 2009, the researchers discovered that the many protestors who self-identified as Democrats ‘withdrew from anti-war protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success’ in the 2008 presidential election.”
Sirota noted that the researchers concluded that “during the Bush years, many Democrats were not necessarily motivated to participate in the anti-war movement because they oppose militarism and war — they were instead ‘motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments.’”
There have been plenty of stout critics of U.S. warring in recent years — including Antiwar.com, The Future of Freedom Foundation, Ron Paul, the Mises Institute, and some principled liberals and leftists such as Counterpunch and Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept. But overall, the media spotlight rarely shone on U.S. carnage abroad, as it did in earlier times. Perhaps the anti-war movement will revive if Donald Trump commences bombing new foreign nations. But it is clear that too many Americans have not yet learned the folly of “kill foreigners first, ask questions later.”