A Plea to Liberals: Stop Marginalizing Peace and Civil Liberties

He proceeded to run through the absurd foreign policy positions taken by various GOP primary candidates, including their most dubious attacks on Obama, and concluded with a defense of the president's record: "Obama is responsible for an aggressive assault on Al Qaeda, including the killing of bin Laden, in Pakistan, and of Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Beginning with his 2009 speech in Cairo, the President has walked a deliberate, effective path on the question of Arab uprisings, encouraging forces of liberation in the region without ignoring the complexities of each country or threatening Iraq-style interventions. He has drawn down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; awakened to the miserable realities of Pakistan and Iran; and, most recently, played a crucial role, without loss of American lives, in the overthrow of the world's longest-reigning dictator. If a Republican had been responsible for the foreign-policy markers of the past three years, the Party would be commissioning statues. In Tripoli, Benghazi, and Surt, last week, Obama won words of praise; on Republican debate platforms, there was only mindless posturing." Barack Obama, foreign policy success story. If he loses in 2012, it's only because of the economy and the groundless attacks of his rivals.

* * *

Its useful to highlight these pieces by Klein and Remnick for several reasons. For all the differences in their age and careers, both are knowledgeable Obama supporters; their worldviews generally resonate with liberals and independents; they're talented enough to persuade readers that their analysis has merit, and disagreeing with them therefore means taking on strong rather than weak arguments. A common thread runs through their assessments of Obama circa 2011: both writers believe he is less popular than he would otherwise be due to economic woes that aren't his fault and partisan opponents who are intransigent and unfair.

For the sake of argument, let's grant all those points.

What vexes me about their pieces -- and they're emblematic of the whole center left take on Obama as he prepares to run for re-election -- is their narrow focus. The issues they fail to raise. The broken promises they don't acknowledge. In an article that touches exclusively on a narrow area of domestic policy, Klein arguably demonstrates that Obama is being judged too harshly by his critics, and then draws sweeping conclusions about his presidency. Remnick looks at one military effort, the war in Libya, selectively cites criticisms levied by incoherent GOP office seekers, and quickly runs through a complimentary counter-narrative presented as though it touches every aspect of his foreign policy.

This is how centrist liberals make themselves complicit in the indefensible.

These are the sorts of treatments that permit well-educated Obama supporters to evade certain uncomfortable truths, like the fact that the president to whom they'll give campaign contributions and votes violated the War Powers Resolution when he invaded Libya; that in doing so he undermined the Office of Legal Counsel, weakening a prudential restraint on executive power; that from the outset he misled Congress and the public about the likely duration of the conflict; that the humanitarian impulse alleged to prompt the intervention somehow evaporated when destitute refugees from that war were drowning in the Mediterranean.

In saying that Obama has "awakened to the miserable realities of Pakistan and Iran," Remnick elides an undeclared drone war that is destabilizing a nuclear power, the horrific humanitarian and strategic costs of which Jane Mayer documents at length in The New Yorker; "Obama is responsible for an aggressive assault on Al Qaeda, including the killing of bin Laden, in Pakistan, and of Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen," Remnick writes, never hinting that al-Awlaki was an American citizen killed by a president asserting the unchecked write to put people on an assassination list that requires no due process or judicial review, and that the administration justifies with legal reasoning that it refuses to make public. "He has drawn down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," Remnick writes, obscuring the fact that there are many more troops in Afghanistan than when Obama took office, and that in Iraq he has merely stuck to the timetable for withdrawal established by the Bush Administration, after unsuccessfully lobbying the government of Iraq to permit US troops to stay longer -- instead, he plans to increase the presence of American troops elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and to leave in Iraq a huge presence of State Department employees and private security.

Klein's piece relies heavily on the reality that, for all his hope and change rhetoric, Obama was constrained in dealing with the economic crisis when he took office. Quite right. Only unjustifiable extrapolation permits Klein to reach the larger conclusion that GOP opposition and a bad economy explain his broken promises. Had Klein tried to come up with a control group to test his hypothesis, he might've looked to the policies over which Obama has substantial or complete control. Is Obama's war on whistleblowers, also documented in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer, something that Republicans and a bad economy forced on him? Are they responsible for the White House's utter failure to deliver anything like the transparency that Obama promised, and its abuse of the state secrets privilege? How does the economy explain the escalation of the drug war and federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal, or the Department of Homeland Security's escalation of security theater to the point that Americans are being groped and undergoing naked scans in airports?

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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