Too Late, Too Little, Too Many Questions

25 May

Obama, Non-LeaderThe speech delivered by U.S. president, Barack H. Obama, at the National Defense University on Thursday contained more than a few promises. President Obama called for the repeal of the “Authorization to Use Military Force”, defined the criteria for the use of drones, and promised to close Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility. It’s a good start, if he can deliver, but there are important issues to consider which make me doubt the United States can restore its prestige and real power, both hard and soft, at any point in my lifetime.

Andrew Sullivan identifies Obama’s “Niebuhrian” twist in his defense of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.

I’m glad the president defended the strike against Anwar Awlaki as forcefully as he should:

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.

My view entirely. I’m struck too by his Niebuhrian grasp of the inherent tragedy of wielding power in an age of terror – a perspective his more jejune and purist critics simply fail to understand. This seems like a heart-felt expression of Christian realism to me:

It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.

Indeed he must. And in the aggregate, I think history will look back on the balance he struck and see more wisdom in it than the purism on the civil liberties left and right or the lawless violence and torture of the Bush-Cheney years.

Jeremy Scahill offers questions about the murky circumstances surrounding Awlaki’s killing, only one of a large number the attorney-general, Eric Holder, sought to explain – unsuccessfully.

The ACLU is seemingly the Obama administration’s new friend, but why now?

Back when ACLU et al tried to use courts to hold the Executive Branch to (almost) the same standard it claims to be adopting now, the Administration predicted dire consequences would result. Not only did it suggest the standard it is now (almost) adopting didn’t bind the President’s Article II authorities, it insisted no one could review its work.

In other words, when the ACLU tried to get a court to hold the Administration to (almost) the same standard it claims it is now in the process of adopting, the Administration refused to be bound by any outside review of its interpretations of these terms.

I guess that’s why these “exacting standards and processes” are what Holder describes only as a “policy” that will be delivered and briefed to Congress, not a law that would do real work to limit the Executive’s actions.

Paul Pillar identifies some terminological opacity.

The White House released, as an accompaniment to the speech, a fact sheet describing criteria and procedures to be used in deciding on additional strikes from armed drones. The release is a positive step toward more transparency and gives us the fullest sense yet about the policy and how it is implemented. But the complete policy guidelines remain classified, the fact sheet is vague on several points, and it raises as well as answers questions. For example, it states that the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons. How can a threat that is “continuing” also be “imminent,” except perhaps for a short time before the threat is finally executed? In other places, such as in describing review procedures when a U.S. citizen is involved, the fact sheet essentially says that things will be done legally without specifying the legal principles and standards to be applied. In offering assurances that noncombatants will be protected, a lengthy footnote says that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants” but doesn’t really eliminate the possibility that many such males will be so deemed.

John Horgan to his credit also laments the perspective from which the Obama administration is ending its perpetual war, instead of “becoming the Peace President many voters hoped he would be.

A high point of Obama’s speech was his off-the-cuff response to shouted objections of an antiwar activist to drone strikes that target unidentified males merely for suspicious activities, such as meeting in war zones. After the woman, Medea Benjamin, was escorted from the room, Obama said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.” Yeah, words are cheap, but I like these words. The man actually listens to his critics.

Needless to say, I want Obama to take much more dramatic steps away from our current militarism. I’ve floated a few ideas on this blog: Slash the U.S. military budget, start closing U.S. bases overseas. Impose a moratorium on U.S. research and development of weapons and cut back on global arms sales. Renounce pre-emptive strikes, especially those that that will probably kill civilians. Promote nonviolent activism in regions of the world with social unrest.When contemplating armed intervention in, say, Syria, impose the end-of-war rule, which decrees that lethal force should only be employed in a way that is consistent with the ultimate goal of ending war and militarism.

There are so many things that a smart, courageous, imaginative leader can do to help move humanity toward a world without war! Call me a fool, but I still have hope that Barack Obama can become that leader.

Like Paul Waldman, I doubt Barack H. Obama is that man and leader.

But what would be truly dramatic is for him to tell Americans the fundamental truth about terrorism. Imagine if he said this: Yes, we face threats from those who would use terrorism to harm Americans, but these threats are extremely limited and quite manageable. They pale next to the threat of guns or car accidents (about 30,000 yearly American deaths each) or tainted food (3,000 deaths a year) or medical errors (perhaps 200,000 deaths per year) or any of a hundred other things that can hurt us.

Handling the threat of terrorism didn’t require the surveillance state we created or the dramatic expansion of powers we granted the president. The “terror” we set out to fight was within us, and we made a choice to feed it and let it control us. The choices we made over the last 12 years were not the inevitable response to outside events, they were just that—choices—and if we chose to, we could undo as many of them as we like.

It would be quite something if Barack Obama said that. But he won’t.

John Sifton argues that Obama “did not offer guidance on where war ends and only law enforcement rules apply.

We are an uglier nation today. It shows in the legalistic assault on words, like “imminent”. it shows in the inability to apologize for mistakes, like killing Jude Mohammad. It stinks when we live in a perpetual war, and that questionable assertion justifies other noxious policies, like assaults on civil liberties and Gitmo. I hope there is no God, because it is an execrable tyrant, and because its justifiable wrath upon humanity would be devastating.

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