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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

The Pitfalls of Presidential Priestliness

June 14, 2012 ·

When it comes to decisions that take lives on behalf of the American people, "moral rectitude" is no substitute for transparency in the Obama administration.

From a devotional candle with President Obama's image on sale in 2009 in San FranciscoOne of the most resonant details from The New York Timesrecent feature on the Obama administration’s targeted killing program is the president’s apparent fondness for the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, two early Christian thinkers who attempted to reconcile the pacifist teachings of Christ with the compromises that leaders must make in their inherently violent line of work. The president, it is suggested, strives to wage a “just war” against militants abroad, exacting only as much violence as is necessary to protect the United States from harm. The Times also reports that Barack Obama personally signs off on nearly every strike.

At the president’s side is his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, who — despite his past support for torture, extraordinary rendition, and illegal wiretaps — is described by an official in the piece as “a person of genuine moral rectitude,” likened even to a “priest…suddenly charged with leading a war.”

The bevy of current and former administration officials interviewed for the Times piece suggests that the administration actively cooperated with its release, purposefully cultivating an election-season portrait of a president willing to make tough calls about the use of force. Yet the desired impact is not merely to convey hawkish bluster. As a nod to voters who may harbor qualms about the implications of “kill lists” and armed drones that freely trespass international borders, the administration presents a picture of a president who labors carefully over every act of violence, weighing the value of a target against the risk of slaughtering innocents.

The entire program, notes the Times, “appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence” in his own judgment. Indeed, the president seems confident not simply that he can order strikes that inflict maximum damage on America’s enemies with minimal risk of civilian casualties — though certainly he feels assured of this, albeit with some specious restrictions on who counts as a “civilian.” But more fundamentally, by carefully presenting every decision as a matrix bounded by unique circumstances and constraints, the president seems to believe that he can exercise his prerogative to kill without setting troublesome precedents or triggering the inevitable blowback. And perhaps most importantly, the president is confident that he can do it on his own.

Such an approach might resonate in the classrooms where the erstwhile constitutional law professor once strode. But in the more dangerous and violent world of politics, it borders on reckless. Unlike the carefully contained vacuums of legal thought experiments, the Obama administration’s decisions about when, where, and how to use deadly force have eroded longstanding norms, set dangerous precedents, and provoked a host of very real unintended consequences from North Africa to the Middle East and beyond. And, with an assist from a Republican Party whose own priests sermonize about “American exceptionalism” and little else, they have helped move the U.S. discourse on national security and foreign policy inexorably to the right.

Droning On

The administration has adamantly asserted the legality of its targeted assassination program, repeatedly dispatching top lawyers and advisers to defend the program against critics who say the operations defy longstanding constitutional norms of due process.

But the administration’s notions of “due process” are troubling at best, amounting essentially to the assertion that an internal government review is sufficient to decide whether an alleged terrorist suspect should live or die — even if, as in the case of the New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the suspect is an American citizen. When Attorney General Eric Holder publicly declared that “‘Due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same,” he demarcated a particularly insidious innovation of the Obama era: Whereas the Bush administration argued that due process didn’t apply to terrorist suspects, the Obama administration has rendered the whole concept meaningless. “‘Due process,’ deadpanned the satirist Stephen Colbert, “just means there’s a process that you do.”

The administration has furthermore declined to make public the substance of these deliberations even after the strikes have taken place. Since one can assume that future presidents will be less astute students of Aquinas and Augustine, it is possible to imagine that future deliberations could be dispensed of altogether — and Americans would be none the wiser.

Worse still, such precedents are scarcely confined by the water’s edge. When ABC’s Jake Tapper asked White House spokesman Jay Carney if the administration had considered the possibility of Russia or China mimicking America’s behavior with respect to drones, the fumbling Carney demurred on discussing such “sensitive issues,” merely assuring the press corps that the White House takes “very seriously the decisions that are involved in the effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda.”

But no amount of “seriousness” can stem the contagion. As of late 2011, according to The New York Times, more than 50 other countries had assembled or purchased unmanned aerial vehicles, presumably confident that if the United States can send drones across international borders to assassinate targets of interest, so can they. “Is this the world we want to live in?” wondered a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Because we’re creating it.”

And what does the administration have to show for such risky behavior? Supporters contend that drone strikes have disrupted the short-term operations of localized terror cells abroad, and at far less domestic political cost than conventional military operations. But as The Washington Post reported in May, drone strikes have proven an exceptionally potent recruiting tool for extremist organizations: since the United States stepped up its attacks on Yemeni targets in recent years, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has more than doubled its membership. Indeed, the group seems more audacious than ever, recently killing nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers in a stunning attack on a military parade drill in Sanaa.

Nor is the radicalization unique to the socially dispossessed or the religiously fanatic. As Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler reports at Salon, Yemen’s educated secular urbanites are equally appalled by the strikes and their apparent disregard for civilian life, regardless of Washington’s assurances to the contrary. The revelation that the United States presumes all adult males killed in a given strike to be “combatants” only adds fuel to fire — particularly since, with the advent of so-called “signature strikes,” the administration may not even know the identities of the intended targets in the first place.

Even some U.S. conservatives seem to understand the outrage, at least when it comes to their own turf. In response to the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles by U.S. police forces, the prominent neoconservative Charles Krauthammer confessed to “going ACLU” and called for a ban on drones in U.S. air space. Closer to the tea party fringe, Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano predicted that “The first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero.”

Surely there is a growing pool of such aspiring heroes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and even the Philippines now too — new conscripts eager to redress the iniquities of the “just war” being waged by the president and his advisers.

North Africa in Turmoil

The toxicity of the drone war, then, cannot be confined to a vacuum in the West Wing, no matter how much consideration the president and his priestly advisers may give to its execution. But on other matters, too, the Obama administration has executed supposedly unique responses to special circumstances that in reality set treacherous precedents and trigger unintended consequences.

Foremost perhaps was the war in Libya, for which the administration was never able to offer compelling evidence of a manifest U.S. interest. Instead, President Obama cited an international mandate to protect Libyan civilians from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s resurgent crackdown on the country’s rebel forces. “The United States should not — and cannot — intervene every time there is a crisis somewhere in the world,” Obama said in a radio address. But “when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives, then it’s in our national interest to act.” However, this mandate was rapidly exceeded as Obama and NATO leaders made clear their intention to remove Gaddafi from power, in effect enlisting NATO as the Libyan rebels’ air force and turning it from peacekeeper to combatant.

Reasonable people may differ on the worthiness of this goal, but the Obama administration pursued it by both abusing a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians and by completely bypassing the U.S. Congress, ostensibly the only body empowered by the U.S. constitution to declare war. Although such formal declarations of war long ago became quaint in Washington, the president demurred even on the nominal step of seeking the congressional authorization required by the 1973 War Powers Act — insisting bizarrely that the country was not “at war” with the government it was seeking to remove by force but was rather engaging in “kinetic military action.” It was as though the government had swept aside one of the last remaining legislative checks on the use of force with the argument that “it’s not purple; it’s really more of a mauve.”

For Libyans the result has been a country where Gaddafi is gone but in which militias run rampant and human rights abuses are as commonplace as ever — a situation that some administration supporters like the progressive blogger Juan Cole, who once wrote scathingly about the disintegration of Iraq, have found themselves in the unfortunate position of defending.

Meanwhile in Mali, to Libya’s southwest, ethnic Toureg separatists launched a powerful new assault on the Malian army with an array of heavy weapons smuggled out of the chaos in Libya, leading indirectly to a military coup in what had been a paragon of democracy in northwest Africa. As secular Tuareg leaders have found themselves increasingly sidelined by Islamist militants in Mali’s vast Saharan expanse, some commentators have even wondered whether the previously democratic Mali could become “the next Afghanistan,” a new haven for globally minded Islamist militants.

Perhaps the holy warriors there will prove fitting rivals for the president and his flock.

A Poisoned Discourse

What the Obama administration’s approach to Libya shares with the drone war, ultimately, is the lack of transparency the White House has brought to each. While singing high-minded paeans to human rights and the national interest, the administration has actually sidelined the mechanisms intended to preserve both. Each case has set dangerous precedents that are likely to be abused by future governments, and neither seems to have made the world safer.

Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the behavior of Washington’s usual partisans. Although a small number of congressional progressives have begun to grumble about the administration’s targeted killing program, mainstream Democratic groups like the Center for American Progress have all but endorsed the drone war, and the Libya fiasco has been reduced to a talking point about taking out Gaddafi. Republicans, meanwhile, have worried less about the proprieties of the drone war and more about whether Mitt Romney would have killed Osama bin Laden. Outside the neoconservative fringe (which wholeheartedly supported the mission in Libya, and then some), the Republican Party’s feeble response to the war in Libya was largely muddled, disingenuous, and occasionally self-contradictory.

Indeed, writes the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, instead of taking stock of the Obama administration’s actual record on foreign policy this election year, Washington’s partisans have mostly “decided to argue about whether the president went on an apology tour, whether he thinks America is exceptional, and whether he leads from in front or behind. It’s depressing.”

With an ongoing and ever-expanding drone war — as well as looming standoffs in Iran, Syria, and the South China Sea — much remains at stake in the foreign policy decisions of coming years. And yet the Obama administration seems loathe to acknowledge any authority but its own in making them, a problem that the American political classes have devoted little to no energy to addressing.

“If angels were to govern men,” James Madison famously mused in Federalist No. 51, “neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But even “priests” are men, as are even the most dutiful students of Aquinas. And when it comes to those decisions that take lives on behalf of the American people, “moral rectitude” is no substitute for transparency.

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