A Plea to Liberals: Stop Marginalizing Peace and Civil Liberties

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?

During the Bush Administration, up right until the end, it was unthinkable that mainstream media organizations or prominent center-left writers would offer general assessments of President Bush that just glossed over his aggregation of executive power, his secrecy, the unchecked militarism and collateral damage of his foreign policy, his attacks on journalists working to shed light on his actions, or the domestic civil liberties abuses, whether the Patriot Act, which Obama extended, the warrantless spying on Americans, which is ongoing, and other policies besides. Ask someone at the ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights or the Cato Institute and they'll affirm that all of these post-9/11 excesses are still problems -- that Obama is better on torture, but that he's also gone farther than the Bush Administration on various objectionable policies, and that his actions have lent to Bush/Cheney policies the veneer of bipartisan consensus.

But to read about the Obama Administration, even in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, both of which do phenomenal work on these subjects in isolation -- to read pieces even by exceptional journalists who agree with the ACLU on most issues -- it is too often the case that these policies are invisible, as if they're so insignificant that they need not be mentioned, when it comes to articles that step back and assess the Obama presidency.

They're just left out of the master narrative.

Is Obama better than all the Republican candidates on these issues? Certainly not. He is worse than Gary Johnson and Ron Paul; arguably worse than Jon Huntsman too. Is he better than anyone likely to win the GOP nomination? Perhaps. Does it matter? What does "better than the Republicans" get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals and destabilizing regions, the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn't even provoke a significant backlash from the left? Is the dysfunction of the Republican Party license to oppose those policies less vociferously than they were opposed during the Bush Administration?

These aren't fringe concerns, or peripheral disappointments to lament in the course of leaving them to the Charlie Savages and Jane Mayers of the world -- they are issues of maximal importance that are central to the Obama Administration. They ought to be raised as such in every assessment of Obama's tenure. What few of us saw in 2008 is that Bush Administration wasn't "a temporary detour from our history's long arc toward justice," and the Obama Administration wasn't a vehicle of change -- it was the normalization of the post-9/11 security state. If it is still to be a detour, there must be a backlash. The Republican establishment isn't inclined to help. And libertarians, civil and otherwise, are too few to bring about a backlash alone.

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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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