I would like to thank Alexander Evans, former Special Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for his comments on an early draft of this article. Thanks also to Adam Quinn, Inderjeet Parmar, Richard Aldrich, Jack Holland, Andrew Futter, David Webber, and JRC.
Justifying sacrifice: Barack Obama and the selling and ending of the war in Afghanistan
Version of Record online: 17 SEP 2012
© 2012 The Author(s). International Affairs © 2012 The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Volume 88, Issue 5, pages 993–1007, September 2012
How to Cite
McCRISKEN, T. (2012), Justifying sacrifice: Barack Obama and the selling and ending of the war in Afghanistan. International Affairs, 88: 993–1007. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2012.01115.x
- Issue online: 17 SEP 2012
- Version of Record online: 17 SEP 2012
Since taking office, United States President Barack Obama has attempted to refocus and revitalize the US war against terrorism. The centrepiece of this effort has been an increased emphasis on the war in Afghanistan, which he has characterized as the real frontline of the war on terror—as opposed to the ‘distraction’ of the Iraq war. After years of fighting under the Bush administration, Obama has had to ‘sell’ to the US public the renewed effort in Afghanistan and bordering Pakistan in order to maintain support for his policy. In speeches and other public pronouncements, Obama has drawn heavily on the idea of ‘sacrifice’ to justify the deepening of the commitment to the war, arguing that the costs of the war are necessary in order to keep the US safe from further terrorist attacks. This article explores this symbolic engagement with the sacrifices being made in the name of keeping the United States ‘safe’ from terrorism. It considers whether this approach resonates with public and elite opinion; it also considers the sustainability of underlying public support for the war and analyses how Obama has adapted his approach in order to fulfil his goal of drawing the US intervention to a close. While Obama appears to have judged well the price that the US public is willing to pay to defend against terrorism, it is argued that there are major risks involved in using the central principle of sacrifice when justifying the war. Obama has risked creating a ‘sacrifice trap’ whereby the more emphasis is placed on the sacrifices being made, the more necessary it becomes to demonstrate outcomes that make those sacrifices worthwhile. Obama's ultimate objective of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan may yet be undermined, therefore, by the justifications he has given for the continued importance of the commitment.