Today, President Obama gave his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world from Egypt. There is a great deal to praise in the speech–a message of partnership, of inclusion, of common humanity. Much like his speech on the need to close Guantanamo, this speech had certain threads that deserve due credit. However, like the prior speech, there’s a rusty nail hiding in the grand gesture.
“We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”
Since much of his work seems pointed towards reconciliation between the three traditions that trace their lineage from Abraham, it’s worth considering this rationale in light of one of the more famous stories involving Abraham–the patriarch’s haggling with God for the survival of Sodom and Gamorrah in Genesis 18:
22 So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.* 23Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ 26And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ 27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ 29Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ 30Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ 31He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ 32Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
Obama’s rationale for remaining in Afghanistan–that violent extremists still exist there–is the inverse of this story. As long as there are potential terrorist in Afghanistan (any, presumably), we must remain there, our bombs continuing to fall in increasing numbers on people who may or may not (yet) be violent. God will not destroy Sodom for the sake of 10 righeous men; America will not refrain from military violence so long as 10 extremists survive in Afghanistan. For the sake of ten, God would show mercy; for the sake of 10, America must lay the city to waste.
The president’s use of the Koran should seem particularly off-key to anyone paying attention to recent events in Afghanistan:
The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as — it is as if he has killed all mankind.
That’s quite a scripture to quote considering that not three weeks ago the U.S. violated its own rules of engagement (along with “Christian” just war criteria) and killed between 30 and 100 civilians while trying to kill Taliban. For the sake of 50 innocents, God would spare the city, innocent and guilty together; for the sake of 50 insurgents, the U.S. would lay waste the city, innocent and guilty together.
Of course this is hyperbole. Obviously President Obama is a smart, even a brilliant man. He would not waste massive wealth and human lives to occupy a whole country for the sake of getting 10 people. But the hyperbole is useful in that it demonstrates the absurdity of the rationale. If this is the benchmark–that violent extremists still exist in Afghanistan–and if its elimination is the only thing that will trigger a cessation of U.S.-backed military violence, then we are trapped there forever. This rationale ignores the role our violence plays in driving the insurgency. It puts the discretion to spend billions–trillions, maybe–of American dollars not in the hands of Congress or the President, but in the hands of any terrorist or terrorist group that manages to cross the border into that country. It demonstrates in stark relief that, like Abraham’s later descendants, we are wandering in the wilderness.