Good Speech, Mr. Obama–If Only It Were True

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.42.56 AMI’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.

*   *   *

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.


9 thoughts on “Good Speech, Mr. Obama–If Only It Were True

  1. DanManEllen

    And let’s not forget about another hypocrisy on Obama’s part:
    Rhteroic: I can’t find an exact quote, but at some point- within the last month I believe- Obama gave a message to young people in which he said that young people must be civilly engaged, that that is what democracy and the free society requires.
    Reality: More than 7700 protestors of various political stripes taking part in the Occupy movement have been arrested and we will never know the numbers who were beaten up by police, pepper sprayed, shot with pepper or rubber bullets, etc. On the matter of state brutality towards the protestors, Obama has remained mum, even as documents showing the coordination of the crackdown by DHS have been leaked and FBI documents have been released in which agents contemplated nonchalantly about assassinating leaders of the movement. As well, not long after Obama was mic-checked by Occupy protestors, Congress passed HR 347, which outlaws (were it not for the supremacy of constitution, of course) any protest within whatever radius of an event where the secret service is present.

    I could go on and talk about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on transparency and openness and the reality of this administration’s war on whistleblowing and psychological torture of whistleblowers, but maybe you will address that later in a blog post on the DOJ, and in case you do, I don’t want to step on your toes.

    1. julianlibertarian Post author

      Good point. It takes a very hypocritical leader to call on students to get active, and then ignore them (or tolerate abuses against them) when that activism isn’t what he wanted.

  2. Jason

    Arguing in hypotheticals? Really? Obama could thwart the will of Congress? Using words like “probably” are not convincing. The balance between national security and personal freedoms will become ever more difficult for this president and the next. As a society we demand protection from enemies and yet are angered when our freedoms are restricted. We are living in ” doublespeak”, get used to it.

    We already left Iraq and we will leave Afgan in 2014. Yes we will have a presence in the Middle East for years to come. We do not have an isolationist foreign policy.

    You blame Obama for using too much executive power when it comes to Drone strikes, yet he is not using enough executive power when it comes to Gitmo. Which is it? Is he the inconsistent one? Are you the inconsistent one? Or rather is the world just a very complicated place and you can’t explain it through your naive libertarian philosophy?

    1. julianlibertarian Post author

      First off, I’m surprised by your casual acceptance of what you yourself call doublespeak. Yes, politicians routinely lie, but that does not make it right. Nor is it right to say one thing (“we try not to kill civilians”) while changing the meaning of the words to mean something completely different, as when Obama redefined “civilian” to mean “only women and children”.

      I want an administration that emphasizes “the public trust” and seeks to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration”. That’s not a pipe dream; that’s what Obama himself promised. And while I’m not naïve enough to believe politicians are honest angels, I have no qualms calling out Obama when he does lie.

      Here’s the bottom line. You yourself admitted that this administration uses doublespeak. For you to defend such a practice and claim that I should “get used to it” rather than criticizing the practice is, frankly, bizarre. When Bush was in office and lied, did you tell liberal reporters “get used to it”?

      Second, I do believe that Obama messed up by signing the NDAA and allowing indefinite detention of US citizens. I also believe that, had he stood up for our 6th Amendment rights, he could have won that fight. At a certain point, you’re right; my argument does become navel-gazing. But my point could be easily rephrased as, “Obama could have fought for our 6th Amendment rights. Instead, he chose not to”. The fact that he chose not to is, I think, fairly damning.

      That said, if you disagree with my analysis, and think Obama’s hands were tied with regards to the NDAA, fine. But Obama didn’t just passively sit by and let the legislation pass. He actively appealed a ruling that would have stopped it taking effect. Essentially his Justice Department threw their full weight behind trying to make indefinite detention the law of the land. How does that mesh with Obama’s promises on civil liberties?

      Third, I recognize that we are out of Iraq and (almost) Afghanistan. I applaud Obama for getting us out of Afghanistan, although not before a 30,000-troop surge (For Iraq, see below). That said, we still drop bombs on people in 7 countries, at least one of which (Pakistan) has condemned our actions in the strongest possible terms. We can debate the merits of Obama’s hawkishness, but there’s no denying that he IS a hawk on this issue. And to the extent that his rhetoric says otherwise, that rhetoric rings hollow.

      As a sidenote, Bush was actually the one who set up a timetable to leave Iraq by 2012; Obama just fulfilled the US’ end of a pre-existing bargain. So he deserves very little credit for getting us out of Iraq.

      As for my “inconsistent” opinion on Gitmo: I condemn Obama for using too much executive power in the war on terror, and ALSO for using too much executive power in Gitmo. Same position. I’m not saying he should unilaterally close Gitmo—nowhere in my article did I say that. I DID say that he has actively used expansive federal powers to increase the human rights abuses going on therein, and he should stop. In both cases, I am calling on him to curtail his exercise of federal power. I fail to see how that’s inconsistent.

      Obama’s actions on Gitmo and the NDAA are similar. In both cases, he didn’t just passively accept the will of Congress. He actively used executive powers to make the NDAA the law of the land, and to increase the human rights abuses of Gitmo.

      By the way, here’s my position on the powers of the president: he should be able to veto bills (like the NDAA), should be able to propose legislation to Congress (ex. to close Gitmo), and should have limited (rather than unilateral) powers to wage the war on terror. He should NOT have the power to unilaterally kill US citizens or trample state sovereignty (again, as he has done in Pakistan). Call it an inconsistent hodge-podge if you really want, but I know another guy who used to preach basically what I do. He was a Constitutional law professor and a Black Senator from Illinois.

      Overall, I recognize that we live in a complex world and that the war on terror presents new dangers. There is an ongoing battle between freedom and security. But that is no justification for throwing out our civil liberties or our humanitarian ideals. As Obama said in 2009, “we reject as false the choice between our security and our ideals”.

      This is what I find so bizarre about being called a “naïve libertarian”. Name-call all you want, but up until 2009 the views in this article were pretty much identical to the views of a majority of Democrats, including their nominee for President.

      1. Jason

        I do not accept that Obama is using doublespeak. I just wanted to make the comparison that the American People are living in doublespeak. And yes that does give him the right to choose his words carefully.

        There are American civilians and congressmen asking the FBI why they failed to stop the Boston bombers, and at the same time the NSA is coming under fire for phone tapping. The survallance videos provided after the Boston bombing helped identify the suspects. I would be interested in what the family members of the deceased say about wire tapping.

        Look, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have all the answers and neither do you. You can yell and scream about an inconsistency here and there all you want. Perhaps your stark criticisms will convince another person to vote against the next democrat or republican. If that’s your aim go for it.

        At the end of the day each politician will have half truths. I still enjoy Obama’s compared to other politicians. He has not crossed my threshold yet and I’m hopeful he can navigate a tricky set of foreign policy issues coming up.

      2. julianlibertarian Post author

        About doublespeak: Ah, I see. In that case, I think it’s unfair for you to lump me (or any person, for that matter) in with every other American. We’re not one giant 300-million-man blob with the same opinions. So when you talk about how Americans are simultaneously clamoring for more security and for more liberty, I think you’re blurring lines; the reality is that SOME Americans are clamoring for more security, while OTHERS are perfectly fine losing some security in exchange for more liberty. I am among the latter; I am perfectly willing to cede the ‘security’ of the NSA, TSA, wiretapping of civilians, etc in exchange for the liberty I had in the 1990s.

        That said, I think you’re right in some sense: Obama is facing demands for more security (from 1 faction of the American people) and demands for more liberty (from a second faction), and these dual demands put contrasting pressures on him. I do think he has the right to choose his words carefully. But on some level a politician’s words should reflect his actions, rather than running counter to them. It is my opinion, as well as the opinion of people like the NYT Editorial Board, that Obama’s actions have not matched his rhetoric on this issue.

        In this sense, I don’t see Obama’s speeches as “an inconsistency here and there”. Like millions of other Americans, I campaigned for Obama because he complained that “this (Bush’s) administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security; it is not” and railed against the “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide”. His civil liberties promises were a cornerstone of his campaign, and I think he has violated those promises in a huge way.

        Ultimately, I think our differences come down to how honest we perceive Obama as being. You perceive him as telling “half truths”. I see Obama’s statements on the war on terror as out-and-out lies, wherein he says X while either doing Y, or else while redefining the word X to mean something it does not.

        I’m happy to admit I don’t have all the answers, and I would certainly not want Obama’s job. But no-one, anywhere, has all the answers; we all do the best we can with the tools available to us, and level criticism as best we may. For instance, you freely admit you don’t have all the answers while still offering a staunch defense of the president’s hawkishness on the war on terror. The fact that neither of us has all the answers does not and should not preclude either of us speaking out. I did about 6hrs of research for this blog, and while that’s not enough to make me a national security expert, I feel confident that I have a thorough enough understanding of the issue to provide an informed opinion. Reasonable people may disagree with my opinion, but I think to call what I do “yelling and screaming” is a cheap shot.

    2. julianlibertarian Post author

      Oh, and here’s how Obama (from 2007) might respond to your claim about the delicate balance between security and freedom: “This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not. There are no shortcuts to protecting America”. Again, if you consider my worldview naive, is the man you voted for in 2008 just as naive?

  3. julianlibertarian Post author

    See Jason, here’s my central issue with your argument: you made it personal. I have occasionally pointed out what I perceive as errors in your analysis, but the lowest I ever stooped is to call one of your arguments “bizarre”. I took pains to spend the lion’s share of my time criticizing Obama’s policies, rather than your character or actions.

    By contrast, you seem to have made criticism of me a central tenant of your comments. You accuse me of a being a “naïve libertarian” and automatically assume any philosophy I could have would be insufficient to explain a complicated world. You further accuse me of essentially throwing a tantrum (“yelling and screaming”) over some minor things Obama has done (“an inconsistency here and there”). Essentially, your statements serve to belittle my point and accuse me of childishness. You then assume that my motive is base (trying to steal votes from Dems, I believe) when the reality is you don’t know the first thing about why I write.

    I appreciate the areas where your criticism has been policy-based rather than personal; don’t get me wrong. But you’ve peppered your comments with statements that, frankly, come across as base mud-slinging. Accusing someone who disagrees with him of “yelling and screaming” over little things is something I would expect from Rush Limbaugh, not from family.

    I have absolutely no problems with criticism. As the sole libertarian in our family, I find my ideas routinely challenged. I also face criticism from war-hawks, anarchists, and people across the political spectrum. As long as criticism is respectful, I appreciate it; I firmly believe that intelligent criticism is how we grow as people. But I do expect that criticism to be basically respectful. I expect people to engage with my ideas rather than just accuse me of naivete.

    During our not infrequent political discussions, I try my utmost to engage with your ideas, rather than stooping to mud-slinging. If I disagree with you on student loans or anything else, I try to tell you why I disagree, rather than claiming that you’re throwing a fit. I expect the same courtesy in return.

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