Dear Andrew Sullivan: Why Focus on Obama's Dumbest Critics?

By Conor Friedersdorf

A major defense of the president exaggerates Obama's accomplishments and misses the point: his scandalous transgressions against rule of law.

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After reading Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek essay about President Obama, his critics, and his re-election bid, I implore him to ponder just one question. How would you have reacted in 2008 if any Republican ran promising to do the following?


(1) Codify indefinite detention into law; (2) draw up a secret kill list of people, including American citizens, to assassinate without due process; (3) proceed with warrantless spying on American citizens; (4) prosecute Bush-era whistleblowers for violating state secrets; (5) reinterpret the War Powers Resolution such that entering a war of choice without a Congressional declaration is permissible; (6) enter and prosecute such a war; (7) institutionalize naked scanners and intrusive full body pat-downs in major American airports; (8) oversee a planned expansion of TSA so that its agents are already beginning to patrol American highways, train stations, and bus depots; (9) wage an undeclared drone war on numerous Muslim countries that delegates to the CIA the final call about some strikes that put civilians in jeopardy; (10) invoke the state-secrets privilege to dismiss lawsuits brought by civil-liberties organizations on dubious technicalities rather than litigating them on the merits; (11) preside over federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries; (12) attempt to negotiate an extension of American troops in Iraq beyond 2011 (an effort that thankfully failed); (14) reauthorize the Patriot Act; (13) and select an economic team mostly made up of former and future financial executives from Wall Street firms that played major roles in the financial crisis.

I submit that had Palin or Cheney or Rumsfeld or Rice or Jeb Bush or John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney proposed doing even half of those things in 2008, you'd have declared them unfit for the presidency and expressed alarm at the prospect of America doubling down on the excesses of the post-September 11 era. You'd have championed an alternative candidate who avowed that America doesn't have to choose between our values and our safety.

Yet President Obama has done all of the aforementioned things.

Pretend that you knew, circa 2008, that President Cheney or Palin or Rice or Rumsfeld or Giuliani would do all those things -- but that, on the bright side, they'd refrain from torturing anyone else, end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, sign a bank bailout, and pass a health-care bill that you regard as improving on the status quo starting in 2014. Would you vote for them on that basis?

I submit that you would not. And if they were elected, and four years later were running for re-election, would you focus on the stupidity of the least persuasive attacks on their tenure? Or would you laud their most incisive critics? I believe that you'd be among their most incisive critics.

Back to the present.

The Newsweek cover headline for Sullivan's piece is "Why Are Obama's Critics So Dumb?" It's entirely defensible to point out that many critiques of Obama are laughably disconnected from reality -- I've done that myself on many occasions -- so it's arguably a fair headline.

But the one I've chosen is fair too: "Why Focus on Obama's Dumbest Critics?"

No, Obama isn't a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist. But he is a lawbreaker and an advocate of radical executive power. What precedent could be more radical than insisting that the executive is empowered to draw up a kill list of American citizens in secret, without telling anyone what names are on it, or the legal justification for it, or even that it exists? What if Newt Gingrich inherits that power?

He may yet. 

Over the years, Sullivan has confronted, as few others have, American transgressions abroad, including torture, detainee abuse, and various imperial ambitions. He's long drawn attention to civil-liberties violations at home too, as a solo blogger and as lead editor and writer of a blogazine. When I worked for Sullivan, he not only published but actively encouraged items I found that highlighted civil-liberties abuses by the Obama Administration, and since I parted ways with The Daily Dish, he and the Dish team have continued to air critiques of Obama on these questions.

But his Newsweek essay fits the pattern I've lamented of Obama apologists who tell a narrative of his administration that ignores some of these issues and minimizes the importance of others, as if they're a relatively unimportant matter to be set aside in a sentence or three before proceeding to the more important business of whether the president is being critiqued fairly by obtuse partisans.

Sullivan should reconsider this approach.

During President Bush's first term, Sullivan will recall the most unhinged attacks on him -- the comparisons to Hitler, the puppets burned in effigy, the comparisons to a chimp. There wasn't anything wrong with lamenting those attacks, just as there's nothing wrong with pointing out exaggerated and baseless attacks on Obama, which have spread through most of the Republican Party. But the priority put on rebutting the least persuasive left-wing critiques of Bush, and pre-election 2004 worrying about the flaws of the Democratic field, are part of what postponed the backlash against Bush's ruinous policies. The backlash should've been the priority all along.

The same is now true of Obama. Like President Bush, he is breaking the law, transgressing against civil liberties, and championing a radical view of executive power -- and he is invoking the War on Terror to get away with it. As much as it was in 2003 or 2007, it is vital in 2012 that there be a backlash against these post-9/11 excesses, that liberty-loving citizens push back so that these are anomalies that are reined in, rather than permanent features of a bipartisan consensus that can only end in a catastrophically abusive executive operating in an office stripped by successive presidents and their minions of both constitutional and prudential checks.

Beyond strenuously objecting to the focus of his piece and what it doesn't mention, and agreeing with some of Sullivan's points, I have important disagreements with others. "Where Bush talked tough and acted counter-productively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war," Sullivan writes. "Since he took office, al Qaeda's popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted." But it's surely relevant that, according to surveys like this one from James Zogby in 2011, "After improving with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, U.S. favorable ratings across the Arab world have plummeted. In most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush Administration, and lower than Iran's favorable ratings (except in Saudi Arabia)." And in the areas where Obama's drone strikes are killing innocent civilians, he is trading short-term terrorist deaths for the possibility that our policies will create more terrorists in the long run. It's a tradeoff some people consider prudent; but that's different from saying he is "winning the propaganda war." In fact, the predictable effect of some of his policies is to increase hatred of the U.S.

Says Sullivan, "Obama's foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower's or George H.W. Bush's, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage." But there are cases when the opposite is true. When the CIA sponsored a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan as a ruse to get bin Laden's DNA, the Dish cited commentators who argued that it was egregiously shortsighted, and quoted an infectious-disease specialist's fears "that disclosure of the CIA's vaccine ruse actually will turn out to kill more people than bin Laden ever did." The bin Laden raid itself, combined with the steady drone campaign in Pakistan, has done so much to destabilize Pakistan that its generals, fearful of American interference, are more frequently moving its nuclear weapons around the country in lightly guarded trucks, as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder. Surely Sullivan should acknowledge that it is possible that the raid and drone strikes will ultimately turn out to be a case of sacrificing long-term strategic advantages for a short-term hit. (That might not be the case -- the point is that it's premature to give Obama credit. We're still operating in the short run.)

Says Sullivan, "From the start, liberals projected onto Obama absurd notions of what a president can actually do in a polarized country, where anything requires 60 Senate votes even to stand a chance of making it into law. They have described him as a hapless tool of Wall Street, a continuation of Bush in civil liberties, a cloistered elitist unable to grasp the populist moment that is his historic opportunity." Without getting into all the issues contained in that passage, it is in fact true that Obama represents a continuation of Bush policies on civil liberties! And in some respects he has gone even farther than Bush.

"Under Obama, support for marriage equality and marijuana legalization has crested to record levels," Sullivan writes. Yes, but no thanks to Obama, who opposes both marriage equality and marijuana legalization! This is the height of illegitimate Obama apologia: attributing to his credit policies he hasn't advanced because a change in public opinion happens to have coincided with his tenure. By this logic Bush also deserves credit for the increasing support for gay marriage during the aughts.

To Sullivan, this is the big picture story of the Obama Administration: "the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider." Like the whole of his essay, it takes as its lodestar the two-party system and defines Obama as a centrist within it, as if the most coherent way to judge him is by comparison with other establishment politicians.

But centrism inside a consensus that is steadily eroding civil liberties, doing away with checks and balances, and increasing executive power is nothing to support, never mind something to celebrate. "Yes, Obama has waged a war based on a reading of executive power that many civil libertarians, including myself, oppose. And he has signed into law the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial (even as he pledged never to invoke this tyrannical power himself)," Sullivan states. "But he has done the most important thing of all: excising the cancer of torture from military detention and military justice. If he is not re-elected, that cancer may well return."

That sums it up, doesn't it?

Obama has transgressed against what is arguably Congress' most essential check on executive power -- its status as the decider of when America goes to war -- and he has codified indefinite detention into law, something that hasn't been done since Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. But at least he doesn't torture people! How low we've set the bar.

It isn't that I object to Sullivan backing Obama's reelection if his GOP opponent runs on bringing back torture. Is he the lesser of two evils? Maybe so. But lauding him as a president who has governed "with grace and calm" and "who as yet has not had a single significant scandal to his name"? If indefinite detention, secret kill lists, warrantless spying, a war on whistleblowers, violating the War Powers Resolution, and abuse of the state secrets privilege don't fit one's definition of "scandal," what does? If they're peripheral flaws rather than central, unacceptable transgressions, America is doomed to these radical, illiberal policies for the foreseeable future.   

Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/01/dear-andrew-sullivan-why-focus-on-obamas-dumbest-critics/251528/