Speaks Softly, Carries a Big Stick
Obama's inaugural address confirmed his intention to support the military's prosecution of a "global war on terror." Previous rhetoric and actions, such as his decision to keep Robert Gates at the head of the Defense Department, have suggested his desire for continuity.
What has changed is the rhetoric used to characterize the effort, and some of the practices established in support of that war, such as the creation of special military tribunals to try detainees categorized as foreign enemy combatants. The Obama administration's call for a pause in those trials while inauguration celebrations were still going on sent a clear message.
Rather than a 180 degree turn, Obama brings subtle shifts in emphasis, which portends both good and bad. Good, in that it signals a softened approach toward the world that is above all conciliatory. Bad, in that it without continued vigilance, soft language may lull us into thinking the war has gone away when nothing could be further from the truth.
Obama, unlike Bush, is never inflammatory. Bush enraged Muslims around the world with his ill-chosen and inaccurate compounds detailing "Islamofascism" and the like, and lost support from Americans and the rest of the world when aggressive and illegal practices came to light.
Rather than blatantly bigoted, Obama's rhetoric is softly coded.
It is coded for military listeners and other war supporters. In his announcment that "our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," Obama communicated clearly that he has accepted the existing terms of the war on terror as they have been shaped by the dominant forces in the U.S. security community. These terms include the premise that war is the proper category for characterizing events, which means there is a particular enemy and a particular fight to be won. By referencing a "network," he gave credence to the mainstream dogma that there are meaningful symbolic or operational connections between far-flung actors. These are often understood as the larger Al Qaeda network. Following the lead of insurgency theorist David Kilkullen, much of the defense community views the war as a global Islamic or Islamist insurgency.
Obama also soothed Americans outrage over the illegalities of the past administration by rejecting "as false the choice betwen our safety and our ideals" and committing to "the rule of law and the rights of man."
Obama's ability to speak in several registers at once is clear. He assured the heads of other nations that he would not inflame their populations with divisive talk, contributing to further destabilizing fragile political eco-systems. He assured the U.S. military that the war goes on, in its terms. He made it clear to Americans that he was familiar with the Constitution, and did not view the U.S. goverment as above the law. And he addressed "those who seek to advance those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents," with intelligently worded claims that focused on American endurance, rather than aggression.
Obama's apparently intuitive grasp of how to address different constituencies and listeners, and his capacity to suggest the U.S. will marshal its own best abilities, rather than seek to eliminate others' worst, is a hopeful gesture. It lays the ground for much to be accomplished through formal and informal diplomacy.
But the softness of his speech should not lull Americans into forgetting that the war machine is still turned on. It may not look or sound like a shooting war, especially as the military resupplies its counterinsurgency toolkit. But it is a war, and we should demand that it be kept as transparently before us as it can, lest we confront it in the future in the form of blowback.