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Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 230 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also:

Follow up essay by Benjamin | Reply by Jeff Meyerhoff



A Psychological, Philosophical
and Political Integrated Perspective

Elliot Benjamin

In this essay I will explore my reactions to Barack Obama's decisions about escalating the war in Afghanistan, from my own integrated perspective that naturally combines psychology, philosophy, and politics, and is interwoven with my own experiences. My essay will include some experiential personal narrative accounts, as well as some references to passages in Obama and Obama for America's books to give insight into Obama's beliefs and perspectives. I begin my essay with an account of when I first heard the name Barack Obama mentioned.

My friend Stevie had tears in his eyes when he watched Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Stevie is an intelligent hardened rugged rural Mainer who has been my friend for nearly 25 years. He and his wife Kate had always portrayed their cynical perspective on politics to me in an impactful and convincing manner, focusing upon the bottom line economic and political motivations that they believed were at the root of virtually all decisions made by politicians in the public arena. This is why it was so startling and unprecedented for me to see Stevie become emotional and even passionate when he talked about Barack Obama. He said that Obama should be president long before Obama announced his presidential intentions. At first and for quite a while I didn't take Stevie's never-ending enthusiasm about Obama very seriously, partly due to my own cynical view of politics, partly due to my philosophical self-immersed nature, and partly due to what seemed to me (and to many others) to be the virtual impossibility of a black person ever getting elected to be the president of the United States. But within a few years Stevie's prediction and idealistic enthusiasm were becoming everyday news, and it was time for me to enter the realm of public political awareness.

My transformation into the realm of public political awareness was also stimulated by my facilitating monthly training workshops on various topics under the heading of “Ethical Dilemmas in the Human Sciences” at a mental health agency that I was employed at. One of my topics was “War and Terrorism,” which coincided timewise with Obama's presidential victory as well as with his decision to send more troops into and escalate the war in Afghanistan. I found myself actively communicating my views against Obama's Afghanistan policy to the major peace advocates in my rural Maine community, and I expressed my frustration and disappointment with Obama publicly at a community meeting sponsored by the Bangor, Maine Peace & Justice Center. For I too had been captivated and inspired by Obama, having seen him in person in Bangor, Maine during his presidential campaign. Seeing Obama in person motivated me to read both of his books (Obama, 1995, 2006), and a good portion of the follow-up book about his political strategies, put out by Obama for America (2008). It has been a gradual process of continuous disappointment and disillusionment for me in regard to my own initial captivation with Obama's “audacity of hope.” My disappointment and disillusionment began when I first heard Obama talk about his plan of escalating the war in Afghanistan, toward the end of his battle with McCain for the presidency. I remember how devastatingly shocked I was at hearing this, but as I read Obama's books, especially The Audacity of Hope (Obama, 2006), I realized that Barack Obama was by no means the antiwar peace candidate that my friend Stevie and I, and millions of others, believed that he was.

Obama expressed his views about escalating the war in Afghanistan while gradually exiting the war in Iraq very clearly in The Audacity of Hope (Obama, 2006), as can be justified from the following passage:

“I would argue that we have the right to take unilateral military actions to eliminate an immanent threat to our security--so long as an imminent threat is understood to be a nation, group, or individual that is actively preparing to strike U.S. targets (or allies with which the United States has mutual defense agreements), and has or will have the means to do so in the immediate future. Al Qaeda qualifies under this standard, and we can and should carry out preemptive strikes against them whenever we can. Iraq under Saddam Hussein did not meet this standard, which is why our invasion was such a strategic blunder. If we are going to act unilaterally, then we had better have the goods on our targets” (Obama, 2006, pp. 308-309).

In the 2008 election campaign book Change We Can Believe In (Obama for America, 2008), Obama's foreign policy plans in regard to the armed forces and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clearly spelled out, and include sections entitled “Finish the Fight Against Al Qaeda,” “Redeploy American Troops in Afghanistan,” “Increase the Size of our Ground Forces,” “Preserve America's Global Reach in the Air,” and “Maintain America's Naval Dominance” (Obama for America, 2008, pp. 107-119).

It is debatable how much Obama manipulated the country to wait to promote his “real” views about using military force to fight terrorists for the optimal time in his bid to prove his military strength in battling McCain for the presidency. But it is undeniable that Obama became president largely through the unprecedented support of millions of young people who believed that he would initiate a policy of international actions that would transfer much of our use of international military force into peaceful alternative communications, both with our friends and with our enemies. But what we now have is the continued nightmare of extended war and devastation, complete with non-stopping civilian deaths and the expanding creation of new terrorists every day. There are many eloquently intelligent arguments against Obama's initial decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and now Pakistan as well, ranging from the need to communicate with the more moderate of the Taliban to the horrible plight of women in the “new” corrupt regime of Afghanistan to the fact that Al Qaeda is greatly reduced in strength and spread out all over the world and not just focused in Afghanistan and Pakistan (see for example The Nation; Hayes, 2009). It has been deeply concerning to me that Obama has seemingly been ignoring the entire liberal political analysis of the nightmare in Aghanistan, as well as the majority of the country who has been opposed to his sending more troops into and escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, true to Obama's great strength as an innovative compromiser, he has now come up with a plan that he hopes will generate the support of both liberals and conservatives: essentially the plan of significantly increasing more troops to be sent to Afghanistan while articulating an exit plan to begin in 18 months.

Obama's three years of experience as a community organizer in Chicago (Obama, 1995) was greatly inspiring to me, and his successes at making some constructive changes in the economic and environmental conditions of the poor Black people he was representing is worthy of respect and admiration. Obama's way of making these changes was directly related to his relentless determined political actions of advocating for and coordinating the people in his community to express their concerns at political gatherings (Obama, 1995). Indeed the expression of public and community concerns by “ordinary” day-to-day people was at the crux of Obama's whole ingenious campaign that resulted in his becoming President of the United States. But now the situation has become reversed. Obama is no longer the intelligent idealistic young Black person diligently working to give voice to the poor Black people in his community. On the contrary, Obama is now generally considered to be the most powerful person in the world, and I deeply hope that his intelligence, wisdom, courage, and pragmatism will find its way into saving our country and the world from disaster.

Obama's greatest strength has proven to be his ardent commitment to reaching out to all parties in a form of innovative compromise, walking the path of moderation and setting priorities that can be achieved through concrete practical steps. These are the qualities that are dominant in President Obama, and while I have felt repeatedly disappointed by his decisions to promote the use of force in Afghanistan, I must admit that I have been caught off-guard by his recent inclusion of an exit strategy after the initial surge is completed, to begin in 18 months. Seeing Obama give his televised speech about Afghanistan once again has had the magnetic effect upon me of wanting to believe in him, wanting to believe in his integrity, wisdom, and ability to truly get the job done. Afghanistan (and now Pakistan) has become “Obama's war” and has been compared to the debacle of our ten year war in Vietnam (The Nation; Hayes, 2009). But Obama did not ignore this criticism from the Left, but clearly articulated his reasons for not agreeing with this determination, with the punch line that this war is not open-ended as we will begin our exit strategy in 18 months. Obama clearly is being severely criticized by Republicans for putting this timetable to his escalation of troops into Afghanistan. But Obama has held fast to his strong commitment of not engaging the United States in an endless war, and has justified his decision to send 30,000+ additional troops to Afghanistan partially as a feasible way to train Afghanistan soldiers to take over their own battle in the fastest amount of time possible. He argued that bringing out troops home at the present time would seriously jeopardize our national security, as he said that the network of terrorists under the auspices of Al Qaeda are still at large and primarily based on the outskirts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There is a world of difference in the level of intelligence and ability to make inspiring speeches between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama is a world-class orator, and there is no mistaking that. This is largely how he succeeded in getting the best of McCain during the presidential debates, buttressed by the economic devastation that fell into his lap at the optimal time for him. But for me the vital question is to decide what I believe in regard to his superb speeches; i.e. do I agree with his logic and strategies and decisions. For a while now I have felt very discouraged and on the verge of once again becoming apathetic to politics, based upon the continuous disappointments that I have felt with Obama. My friend Stevie vows that he will never again be “taken in” by the charm, intelligence, and polished idealistic speeches of a political candidate. I have been close to feeling this way myself, but then something inside of me does not let me give up on the possibility of wisdom, sincerity, and idealism coming together in a political candidate.

My strength of knowledge is by no means in my knowledge of world politics, or where Al Qaeda is primarily hiding out, or how feasible it is to communicate peacefully with the more moderate of the Taliban. But I do know and understand well the severe dangers of religious cultists, as I have experienced and written about many modern religious groups in the context of their level of cult dangers (Benjamin, 2005a, 2005b). The suicide bomber terrorists who believe they are gaining everlasting heavenly life by ending their earthly lives and the lives of innocent others are religious cultists in the most dangerous extreme form imaginable. I do not disagree with Obama that it is necessary for our national security to do all in our power to “capture or kill” as many of the members of the Al Qaeda network as it is feasible for us to do. And yet Obama has also put a time limit on how much he is willing to give up to accomplish this. I do not agree with Obama that we were right to go to war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan when we did (Obama, 2006, pp. 292-295), as opposed to using other measures to go after Bin Laden and Al Qaeda after 9/11. But this is now past history, and the situation as it stands today is one where I must agree with Obama that the most important consideration is to limit as much as possible the effectiveness of Al Qaeda and their network of terrorists to wreak havoc on the United States and the world.

If I had heard no exit plan tonight to get us out of Afghanistan by transferring the battle to the Afghanistan soldiers themselves as quickly as possible, then I would be as opposed to Obama's war policies as I was opposed to those of Bush. But from what I heard Obama commit to tonight, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and put my reservations on hold. People are already asking what happens in 18 months if our objectives in Afghanistan are not met and the Afghanistan soldiers are not ready to take up the battle on their own. And I can understand that this is exactly the situation Obama wants to try his best to avoid, which is his primary reason for sending 30,000+ additional troops to Afghanistan. The bottom line for me is that I believe he is sincerely trying to end this war in a way that will not jeopardize our national security, and at this time I am willing to support him in this effort. In conclusion, as I view the whole complicated situation of Obama and the war in Afghanistan from an integrated perspective that combines psychology, philosophy, and politics, what I come up with is my decision to believe once again in Barack Obama's intelligence, idealism, sincerity, and wisdom. I may not agree with Obama's particular viewpoint about the initial justification to have gone to war in Afghanistan in 2001, but I am willing to stay open to and presently be supportive of the way Obama has decided to try to finally put an end to this war in 2009.


Benjamin, E. (2005a). Modern religions: An experiential analysis and expose. Swanville, ME: Natural Dimension. (book available by contacting author)

Benjamin, E. (2005b). Spirituality and the cults: An experiential analysis. The Ground of Faith Journal, April/May, Retrieved August 1, 2008.

Hayes, C. (Ed.). (2009). The Nation. [Special Issue on Afghanistan]. November 9.

Obama, B. (1995) Dreams from my father. New York: Crown.

Obama, B. (2006). The audacity of hope. New York: Crown.

Obama for America (2008). Change we can believe in: Barack Obama's plan to renew America's promise. New York: Three Rivers Press.

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