I’ll give President Obama credit: he’s a heck of a speaker. Speaking to the National Defense University this past Thursday, Obama preached a deep concern for human life and civil liberties. It was a great speech. There’s only one problem: very little of it is true.
Let’s go through the speech and compare rhetoric to reality:
Rhetoric: “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose—our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.
Reality: The news that Obama respects state sovereignty must come as a surprise to Pakistan. Their elected officials have repeatedly claimed that US drone strikes violate their sovereignty. Indeed, a Peshawar high court claimed the strikes are illegal. And yet Obama has made no plan to stop these attacks.
More broadly, Obama’s rhetoric implies that his strikes are geographically constrained—that he cannot strike “wherever we choose”. But how geographically constrained can they really be? Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan have all suffered drone strikes. Outside of the Middle East, he has targeted Mali, Somalia, and North Africa. The drone war now rages on 2 continents and at least 7 countries; if Obama truly cannot strike “wherever we choose”, than where on earth can he not strike?
Rhetoric: “And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set”
Reality: According to the New York Times, the Obama administration reclassifies all victims of drone strikes as “militants”, provided they’re males age 18 or older. That means male shopkeepers, bakers, and fathers are declared “militants” just because they died in a military strike. Obama has embraced the same classification we used in Vietnam: “How do we know they’re militants? Because they’re dead”.
Obama can claim that his administration tries not to kill civilians, but his changing the definition of the word renders this claim meaningless. I try hard to avoid references to George Orwell’s most famous book, but to reclassify any male killed as a “militant”—be they bakers, shopkeepers, etc—and then to claim that we try not to kill civilians is, frankly, doublespeak.
Rhetoric: “That means that – even after Boston – we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence”
Reality: Obama signed the 2012 NDAA, and the indefinite detention provision therein (Section 1021) expressly allows the government to “throw someone (ie a US citizen) in prison in the absence of evidence”. Admittedly, Mr. Obama has not used this power yet. But by signing both bills, he gave not only himself but also every future president the power to throw US citizens in prison without evidence.
One could argue that Obama had no choice but to sign the bill, since it was passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses. But given the obvious unconstitutionality (not to mention unpopularity) of the indefinite detention provision, Obama could certainly have used his bully pulpit to rally the people and convince Congress to strike Section 1021. Alternatively, he could have backed up a veto threat with Congressional lobbying, and probably convinced at least 1/3 of Senators or Congressmen to vote against the bill. That would have allowed Obama to veto the bill and protect US citizens’ right to trial. Put simply, the most powerful man in the world could have taken a stand and won. The fact that he refused to do so says much more about his respect (or lack thereof) for the 6th Amendment than does his speech on Thursday.
At the very least, Obama could have abstained from suing to keep the indefinite detention provisions in place.
Rhetoric: “a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways”
Reality: According to Obama officials, the war on terror is already perpetual. According to Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, the war will continue “At least 10 to 20 years” after 2012. Admittedly, Obama cannot be blamed for getting us into the war on terror. But rather than end it, his administration had made plans to perpetuate the conflict into the 2030s. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman put it, “Welcome to America’s Thirty Years War”.
One reason the war on terror will go on for so long is because the US creates its own enemies through blowback. For those unfamiliar with the term, “blowback” is the idea that when we bomb a village in (say) Pakistan, the survivors don’t like us very much. Children who lose parents grow up to hate the US; fathers who lost children sign up to wage war on the nation that bombed their home. By bombing villages and killing civilians, the US fuels hatred and inadvertently insures a steady supply of recruits for our enemies. Obama’s wartime policies are probably undertaken with the best of intentions; but they are inadvertently sowing the seeds for the sort of perpetual war that he condemned on Thursday.
Rhetoric: “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process”.
Reality: Obama has, to date, ordered drone strikes that have killed at least 4 US citizens. He has done so without trying these citizens and without judicial approval; his idea of “due process” seems to consist of him reading over someone’s file and deciding whether or not the target merits death. No doubt he takes this responsibility seriously. But still, if that—an executive unilaterally deciding whether or not to kill a citizen—represents due process, than every tyrant in history has exercised due process just by having final approval on who their regime assassinates.
This is not to say that Mr. Obama is a tyrant; it is only to point out that due process means more than executive decision on assassination targets. Due process means the rule of law and trial in court. Under no definition of the term can Obama claim that’s what he exercised.
And, of course….Gitmo.
Rhetoric: “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility (ie Guantanamo Bay) that should never have been opened”
Reality: Obama cannot close Guantanamo Bay alone, but his actions have actually expanded—rather than diminished—the human rights abuses going on inside. For instance, he approved holding 47 prisoners indefinitely, without charge or trial, in the facility. Similarly, according to MSNBC his Justice Department, “has routinely fought court orders to release detainees who won their habeas cases in the D.C. Circuit”. Many of these fights have been successful, leaving detainees behind bars. If Obama is serious about ending Guantanamo Bay, he shouldn’t be so active in expanding the abuses that occur inside.
Obama is right to blame Congress: it takes a Congressional act to close the facility, and Congress’ failure to do so is shameful. But Obama is far from powerless in this fight; if he were serious about ending the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, there is a laundry list of actions he could take. While Obama can shell out some blame for what happens at Guantanamo Bay, he should reserve the lion’s share for himself.
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I was excited when President Obama took office in 2009; I looked forward to a more humane approach to the war on terror. I looked forward to a president who understood and valued civil liberties. But while Mr. Obama proved on Thursday that he can talk that particular talk, his walk tells a very different story.