Nation At War Vs. ‘Nation At War’

Bush ObamaDavid Corn has some good thoughts on the Obama administration’s disuse of the “nation at war” frame, something that the Bush administration relentlessly used to justify everything from torture to tax cuts. While it’s of course important to remember that we have troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, repeatedly declaring the nation ‘at war’ ““is an exercise in defining the country,” Corn writes, “and eight years after 9/11, Obama clearly wants to step back from turning ‘at war’ into an essential part of the nation’s self-image.”

While no citizen should forget that US troops are dying and killing in two countries–and that these wars need to be resolved — [there] is no need to make war a defining characteristic of the United States, not even when the threat from al Qaeda remains, not even on the anniversary of 9/11.

In a key moment in a January 2008 primary debate, candidate Obama answered a question about Iraq by saying “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place.” Obviously, it takes more than nine months of a presidency to change such a mindset, but, as with his administration’s re-contextualizing the fight against extremism as one of intelligence partnerships and global law-enforcement, and not unilateral military action, the president’s decision not to assert “nation at war, coming through” at every turn is a small but important move in that direction.

On a related point, I realized that I neglected to acknowledge something important in yesterday’s post theorizing about the effects in Iran of Obama’s outreach — and Bush’s belligerence — toward Iran: It’s not all about us. While arguments about America are a feature of Iranian politics, focusing too much on how this or that American policy or behavior affects Iranian politics really underplays the extent to which current political conflicts in Iran have been generated from within Iran. U.S.-Iran relations are only one aspect of the upheaval, which is rooted in disagreements among Iranians about what it means to be a modern Iranian, and what it means to be an Islamic state (and resulting in the efforts of a particular faction to settle these disagreements by force.)

Some Iranians, like Ahmadinejad and those around him, believe that the international community is irretrievably hostile to the Islamic Republic, and will do anything to undermine it, and thus Iran has to maintain an aggressive posture and never show anything that could be construed as weakness. Other Iranians, like Mousavi and many of those around him, believe that Iran can take a more conciliatory path while still staying true to the principles of their revolution. These sorts of disagreements should not be at all unfamiliar to Americans.