The limits of self-reference

President Obama responded yesterday to former Vice President Cheney’s claim that he doesn’t consider the fight against terrorism to be a war by quoting from his inaugural address. “On that day,” Obama reminded us, “I made it very clear that our naton is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them, and make no mistake that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”
So there you have it: if Obama’s rhetoric has, at one time or another, employed the word “war” in connection with words having some relationship to terrorism, then he must be waging war on terrorism.
Immanuel Kant posited a noumenal world and a phenomenal world — the latter consisting of what appears to the senses; the former consisting of “things in themselves.” For Obama, there is a third world — call it the oratoromenal world — consisting of the world as Obama has described it in speeches.
Does Obama really consider the fight against terrorism (or against the “network of violence and hatred”) to be a war? Limited as I am to understanding the world through what appears to the senses, my answer is: only up to a point.
There is no doubt that some of Obama’s actions as president are consistent with treating the fight against terrorism as a war. However, handling a captured foreign terrorist who has tried to blow up an airliner as an ordinary criminal defendant, so that we provide him with a lawyer and he stops providing us with information, is not consistent with treating the fight against terrorism as a war. Setting an arbitrary date on which we will begin pulling out of what Obama stipulates is the central battlefield against terrorism is not consistent with treating the fight against terrorism as a war for very long.
Sending terrorist detainees back to an emerging center of terrorist activity even after we have seen other detainees returned there emerge as key leaders in terrorist activity is not consistent with treating the fight against terrorism as a war. Expressing a desire to negotiate with regimes that are key participants in the “network of violence and hatred,” and failing wholeheartedly to back those who would overthrow the most dangerous of these regimes, is not treating the fight against terrorism as a war.
If Obama wants to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he takes the fight against terrorism seriously, he needs to change both his posture and his policies. Referring to past speeches won’t do the trick.

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