“The Lethal Presidency”


Tom Junod sees the drone war as central to Obama's presidency:

You are not the first president with the power to kill individuals. You are, however, the first president to exercise it on a mass scale. You inherited the power from George W. Bush as one of several responses to terrorism. You will pass it on to your successor as the only response, as well as an exemplar of principle. Your administration has devoted far more time and energy to telling the story of targeted killing than it has to telling the story of any of your domestic policies, including health care. It is as though you realize that more than any of your policies, the Lethal Presidency will be your legacy.

The essay, as with everything from Junod, is well worth reading – a fair but powerful case against drones and the targeted killing of enemy combatants. This strikes me as its nub:

The danger of the Lethal Presidency is that the precedent you establish is hardly ever the precedent you think you are establishing, and whenever you seem to be describing a program that is limited and temporary, you are really describing a program that is expansive and permanent.

Jonathan Last asks why more liberals haven't turned on Obama over this:

There were plenty of Republican types whom Bush drove out of the party. (Andrew Sullivan, Kathleen Parker, Andy Bacevich, Jim Webb, etc.–the list is actually pretty long.) Why haven’t any lefty Dems done the same? 

Sonny Bunch spots a double standard:

What conservatives have a problem with is the way in which liberals treated incredibly difficult issues of national security—Gitmo, GWOT, drones, waterboarding, etc.—as little more than a political cudgel with which to bash someone they didn’t like and then, when their guy was in office, ceased giving a shit.

But I have to say that this line of attack on Obama seems remarkably off-base to me – even in Junod's nuanced reflection. The conflation of the issues above – Gitmo, GWOT, drones, waterboarding, etc – is part of the problem. Obama tried to close Gitmo but the Congress wouldn't let him. He never proposed or even hinted that he would end the war on Jihadist terror; in fact, one of his defining moments as a candidate was to defend war as necessary at times in countering evil. He gave a Nobel Peace Prize speech which was centered on Christian realism, not pacifism, as a basis for deciding issues of war and peace. Liberals who had a problem with this presumably still have a problem, but Obama has done nothing that he didn't explicitly say he'd do.

The difference between him and Bush, moreover, is stark. First and foremost, there is an end to the torture program. For many of us, that was the first non-negotiable deal-breaker from the Bush administration. To bungle two wars, as Bush and Cheney did, is one thing. To throw away the invaluable tradition of decency in wartime was unforgivable. Torture is not, as Bunch would have it, a "difficult issue". It is an easy one. We don't do it or condone it and we bring to justice anyone caught doing it. Obama's failing is in the latter part – but it pales in comparison with Cheney's lawless barbarism. And the end of torture has immensely improved intelligence and brought some moral credibility back to the West. Are some terror suspects being treated horribly in allied countries? There's much evidence that this is true. And the Obama administration should be extremely careful not to exploit or use any intelligence garnered from torture or abuse. But there is an obvious difference between the injustices perpetrated by regimes in developing countries and the standards we set for ourselves.

As to the drone war, what would Junod have Obama do? The alternatives are either long-term occupation of Jihadist-spawning countries, or a decision to end all military responses to Jihadist terror, or a more focused drone campaign that can minimize civilian casualties while taking out key enemies planning to kill Western and Muslim civilians. I harbor severe worries about the unintended consequences of the drone war, and deeply regret civilian casualties. But there were around 100,000 civilian casualties caused by the Iraq occupation. Obama's record is simply not comparable with the widespread destruction and immorality of the Bush-Cheney era.

So Obama has waged the war he promised (against al Qaeda) with minimalist but lethal means (drones). He has been far more successful in killing Jihadists before they kill us than Bush, with Osama the most conspicuous example. He has ended torture; he has withdrawn every soldier from Iraq; and is winding down the Afghanistan campaign. If you are a utopian liberal who projected onto Obama peacenik pretensions he never claimed himself, you can, I guess, be outraged. And the danger of precedent and blowback is real and deserves airing. But the idea that a more moral, more lethal and less casualty-laden fight against al Qaeda is some kind of betrayal of Obama's promise just baffles me.

It is not a betrayal. It is a promise kept.