My “Faith” In Obama

Obama Celebrates His Birthday At DNC Fundraiser In Chicago

Freddie deBoer struggles to reconcile my book with my recent blogging:

If you asked me to define one trait that would be least reconcilable with the conservatism espoused in The Conservative Soul, it would be deference to a particular leader. I cannot square the recognition that all political leadership is subject to corruption and failure with the kind of faith Sullivan regularly shows in Obama. And this becomes a deeper confusion when you see how this trust has filtered down from Obama to the people and programs beneath him.

He asks:

How can a man who admits the elusive nature of prudential judgment trust the judgments of thousands of totally unaccountable government functionaries? How can he believe that a system bent on total secrecy and total denial of oversight or restraint would represent a culture that could instill character? How could he look at this vast, dehumanized and dehumanizing surveillance system and not see a potentially failed solution to a problem that is, in perspective, a fact of life in the modern world? I cannot reconcile the philosophy with the individual commitments. I no longer really know how to read Andrew, at this point.

Well, I am most grateful for Freddie’s deep reading of my book, The Conservative Soul. But I dispute the idea that I have hero-worshiped Obama or failed to apply the same principles against him as I did against Bush, whose offenses were nonetheless immensely greater. The record of my tough criticisms of Obama on various issues is there for all to read. From dragging his feet on gay rights to not prosecuting war criminals to failing to end the war on marijuana to intervening in Libya without Congressional approval to the surge in Afghanistan … it’s a long list.

At the same time, judging political events in real times does require some grip on the character of those in office, and the inevitable compromises that requires, and I remain an admirer of Obama’s temperament, pragmatism and small-c conservatism. And I don’t think that abstract ideological issues can ignore the role of human beings and their prudential judgments over time. A conservative will always recognize that there is no substitute for character in political leaders and that representative government requires some basic form of – sorry – minimal trust if it is to function at all. Skepticism is not anarchism; real conservatives like strong, but limited, government. That’s why, though I have serious libertarian leanings, I still call myself a conservative. That’s why I see more insight in, say, David Brooks’ column today, than many on the libertarian right or civil liberties left.

So, yes, there is a real potential for abuse of a system like PRISM. But are we actually going to prevent government from using Big Data, while Google plumbs its depths even further and Buzzfeed even schedules its content by chasing algorithms? At least there is some minimal check on the government, a judicial court. It almost certainly needs more muscle, as this reader suggests, and that might be a helpful reform. There is also Congressional oversight – another important check. Yes, I remain skeptical and opposed to the state secrets that Obama has maintained which make it impossible for the public even to have a debate about trade-offs or those in Congress to protest publicly. But that doesn’t mean denying the realities of the low-level Jihadist insurgency we and the Muslim world are struggling against. Back to Freddie:

I would like for Sullivan to consider the possibility that he is placing far too much faith in a bureaucratic apparatus that contains a multitude of agendas and all of the potential for mismanagement and bad behavior that engenders… a scary thought, when that apparatus is connected to military power.

These programs are run by people, and people are fallible and frequently immoral. (It’s worth noting that many of the people working in these programs are the same people who worked under the Bush administration that Sullivan has rightfully criticized.) It would take so little for all of this to go wrong.

Yes, I know, and am open to such a debate. In fact, I’d welcome such a debate, as long as we can discuss trade-offs and not absolutes, as so many civil libertarians prefer. And I didn’t criticize Bush for this. So it seems plain weird to say that my position on this kind of meta-data is somehow a function of faith in one leader, rather than a consistent position. And if my position on this is that it may be, in fact, the least worst kind of surveillance, then again, I fail to see where I have gone astray.

From the very beginning of this conflict on 9/11, I argued both for pursuing this lethal fundamentalist insurgency on civilization and for protecting our civil liberties as much as we can in the process. I understood this would require pragmatic judgment and remain very open to the idea that we now may have a chance to seize this moment for a broader and necessary debate. I think Obama has pursued a balance in ways that Bush never fully did until the influence of Cheney receded. Here’s a money quote from the Dish on the very day of the attack:

The one silver lining of this is that we may perhaps be shaken out of our self-indulgent preoccupations and be reminded of what really matters: our freedom, our security, our integrity as a democratic society. This means we must be vigilant not to let our civil liberties collapse under the understandable desire for action. To surrender to that temptation is part of what these killers want… The task in front of us to somehow stay civilized while not shrinking from the face of extinguishing – by sheer force if necessary – the forces that would eclipse us.

I believe that is still the task, that Bush massively over-reached (unforgivably so on torture) and that Obama has improved on Bush immeasurably – no more torture, no more completely unchecked executive power, and a genuine attempt to close Gitmo – and may now be able to lead from behind on civil liberties with cover from parts of the public. At the same time, I’d welcome that. But PRISM? Big Data exists whether we like it or not. Not to use it and use more targeted forms of surveillance would unnerve me more. And yes, of course, there is potential for abuse – which is why I’m delighted it is now out in the open, where it should be. But we may find that the public’s view of the correct balance is not where Rand Paul or Glenn Greenwald or Freddie want it to be. And in the end, it’s their call.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty)