With incidents of political violence occurring on a frequent basis across the world, officials in the Obama administration repeatedly face a difficult question: Is it ever legitimate to use violence to achieve political aims?
On July 19, 2016, State Department spokesman Mark Toner presented one answer. Today, “we would certainly want to caution anybody who thinks that violence is a plausible way to achieve any political aims,” Toner stated. Hoping to discourage people from turning to violence, Toner insisted that the Obama administration opposed the use of violence in political affairs. “I think it’s a pretty common dictate of ours to say that there’s no military solution to any crises, political or otherwise,” he noted.
Often, US officials make similar statements. When commenting on world events, officials regularly condemn political violence while they urge political leaders not to use force in political affairs.
“I think all of us in the world have learned that violence only leads to more violence; it’s not a solution to anything,” Secretary of State John Kerry stated on August 4, 2016.
Of course, US officials have also taken a different position. Throughout history, officials have continually employed violence to pursue their political objectives.
After 9/11, the Bush administration repeatedly resorted to force in global affairs. For example, the Bush administration employed violence in Afghanistan to achieve political change. Since the ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, President Bush decided to invade the country and overthrow the Taliban. “We are going to rain holy hell on them,” Bush proclaimed.
Likewise, the Bush administration applied a similar approach to Iraq. To overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration launched a major military attack against Iraq.
During the initial stages of the war against Iraq, US military forces killed tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. “In other words, we had just been mowing them down as we’re coming in,” Bush explained.
Over the course of the war, US military forces killed countless more Iraqis. As the war unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that resulted in the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis, US military forces directed a lethal assault against Iraqis who resisted the occupation. “We did an awful lot of capturing and killing in Iraq for several years before it started to have a real effect,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal explained.
In more recent years, the Obama administration has continued to employ violence in world affairs. Although officials such as John Kerry have insisted that violence is not a solution to anything, the Obama administration has relied on violence to pursue its political objectives.
In June 2016, President Obama turned to violence when he authorized the thousands of US military forces in Afghanistan to conduct military operations against the Taliban. Although he had declared in December 2014 that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending,” Obama decided that military forces should continue to fight the Taliban.
Shortly after Obama made his decision, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained that the new authorities allow “US forces to be more proactive in supporting conventional Afghan forces as they take the fight to the Taliban.” The decision “means, in some cases, offering close air support, or it means, in some cases, accompanying Afghan forces on the ground or in the air,” Earnest noted.
The following month, Gen. John Nicholson provided more details. Speaking to the press, Nicholson explained that US military forces in Afghanistan were helping the Afghan government wage offensive military operations against the Taliban. Currently, “we’re using our new authorities so that the Afghan Army can assume the offensive against the enemy in Maiwand District, Band-e-Timor area, which is a well known staging area,” Nicholson said. “So it’s offensive.”
As the Obama administration escalated the military campaign against the Taliban, it also directed similar operations throughout the Middle East. Employing its military power in both Iraq and Syria, the administration waged a massive military assault against ISIS (also known as Daesh).
During the military campaign, the Obama administration used a variety of military tactics. Administration officials are taking advantage of “all of our awesome capabilities, from airstrikes to special forces,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on July 11, 2016.
The following month, President Obama provided additional emphasis. “Our air campaign continues to hammer ISIL targets.” There have been “more than 14,000 strikes so far.”
By waging such a massive military assault, the Obama administration has also directed a deadly blow against ISIS. As the State Department official Antony J. Blinken has repeatedly confirmed, the United States and its allies have killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters.
Moreover, administration officials expect the ongoing military assault to result in more deaths. With the Obama administration now preparing to launch major attacks against ISIS in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, administration officials acknowledge that the death toll will very likely increase. “And so if there’s going to be an assault on Raqqa and Mosul, you’re going to have unfortunately a lot more damage, you’re going to have a lot more casualties,” CIA Director John Brennan said.
As the Obama administration has begun preparing its next major offensive against ISIS, it has also provided another powerful signal of its decision to use violence in global affairs. In an escalation of the global war against terrorism that it inherited from the Bush administration, the Obama administration has proclaimed that it will simply kill anyone that it deems a threat.
Certainly, “the United States will continue to target and strike terrorist leaders everywhere in the world where they might threaten Americans or our interests and our friends,” Ashton Carter said. “We’ll continue to do that as we have demonstrated that we do.”
Indeed, administration officials have made it clear that they will use violence to secure their many interests around the globe. Whether they sought to weaken the Taliban, eliminate ISIS or assassinate “terrorist leaders,” they have concluded that they must use violence to achieve their global political objectives.
When administration officials caution against the use of violence in political matters, they implicitly reserve an exception for the United States. While they most likely want to see their political opponents refrain from using violence, administration officials repeatedly demonstrate their willingness to use violence to achieve their plans for the world.
“The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our enduring interests demand it,” the Obama administration has confirmed.