In June, US President Barack Obama passed a grim milestone, his administration has been at war longer than that of any other US president.
When Obama ascended into office, he pledged to end what has become America’s longest war.
The conflict in Afghanistan has been ongoing since 2001.
But, at his last NATO press conference in Warsaw on Saturday, one reporter noted that he could end up being the only president in the nation’s history to have served two complete terms with the country at war (if the US stays in combat in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan until the end of his second term).
And, as such, he asked Obama whether Americans should be “resigned” to living in this state of perpetual war.
Obama first responded by pointing out that there has been a shift in military operations over the last several years.
“I think you’d recognise that our military operations today in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally different than the wars we were engaged in when” he came to office, he said.
The troops are involved “in train-and-assist situations,” he continued, adding that the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today pales in comparison to the six-digit figure from when he came to office.
However, he also touched on the notable shift in how countries deal with conflict.
“There are fewer wars between states than ever before, and almost no wars between great powers,” he said. Rather, he continued, “we’re dealing with non-state actors.”
And “because they’re non-state actors, it’s hard for us to get the satisfaction of [Gen.] MacArthur and the [Japanese] Emperor [Hirihito] meeting and the war officially being over,” he observed, referencing the end of World War II.
Obama also stated that the US’ ultimate goal is to partner with countries that have “limited capacity” to deal with the non-state actors that operate within them so that they can secure their borders and themselves eliminate terrorist threats.
“But, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan, that takes some time,” he continued.
The Afghans”are much more capable now than when I came into office, but they still need help” given the “tough territory,” low literacy rates, and given their lack of “things we take for granted like logistics.”
The US has the option to go in and take out Al-Qaeda, pull out, and “potentially see the country crumble under the continued strain of terrorist insurgency and then go back in,” he said. Or the US can maintain a “limited partnership” and selectively take action.
Still, as the New York Times’ Mark Landler noted earlier, it’s also true that Obama has “approved
strikes against terrorist groups in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, for a total of seven countries where his administration has taken military action.”
“The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign, in the tradition of World War II or, to a lesser degree, Vietnam,” Landler wrote back in May. “The longevity of his war record, military historians say, also reflects the changing definition of war.”
Ultimately, it’s interesting to think about how the state of conflict might have changed over the last century — or, at least, how the definition of war may have changed in the eyes of the Obama administration — and how might his successor might address these questions in the future.
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