A bigger problem, though far from the biggest, is the notion that Obama has "accomplished exactly what he said he'd accomplish" while waging the war on terrorism. He has, it's true, killed Osama bin Laden, along with other people ranging from Al Qaeda operatives to innocent children. He also ended the war in Iraq on President Bush's timetable and surged troops into Afghanistan. And he signed an executive order barring torture, the most depraved practice of his predecessor.
But Obama hasn't eliminated Al Qaeda -- how many more number twos will die in the next year? -- and his foreign policy as a whole has strayed dramatically from what he promised. That is obvious. And you don't need to take my word for it. As Sullivan himself once noted, "those of us who fought for Obama's election precisely because we wanted a return to the rule of law were conned." And "the perverse truth is that, in some ways, the Obama administration is
in greater violation of Geneva than even the Bush-Cheney
administration." This is worth noting too:
Aggressively trying to prevent torture victims from having their day in
court merely using unclassified evidence is active complicity in the war
crimes of the past. And such complicity is itself a war crime. Either
we live under the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions, or we don't.
And when Obama says we don't -- as he unmistakably is -- the precedent he
is setting all but ensures that torture will come again, that there will
never be consequences for it, and that the national security state can
cloak itself in such a way that the citizenry has no way of penetrating
its power. Bush and Cheney remain the real culprits here; but watching
Obama essentially surrendering to their trap is a betrayal of a core
rationale for his candidacy.
Sullivan also said this about a different promise Obama broke:
Many of us supported this president because he promised to bring back
the constitutional balance after the theories of Yoo, Delahunty, et al
put the president on a par with emperors and kings in wartime. And
yet in this Libya move, what difference is there between Bush and
Obama? In some ways, Bush was more respectful of the Congress, waiting
for a vote of support before launching us like an angry bird into the
Despite all these misgivings, it's the drone aided kill-stats to which Sullivan always comes back, as if our president's cool competence has allowed him to end the terrorist threat by remote controlled aircraft. But it really doesn't make sense to extol Obama every time a drone kills an Al Qaeda operative. There's no shortage of politicians who, if elected president, will give the CIA permission to fire on suspected terrorists in various foreign countries. Herman Cain would give that order. So would Rick Perry. Sarah Palin might even let drone operators practice on wolves. Would they be serving America's best interests in doing so? I don't think so. Neither does Jane Mayer
. Nor Jeremy Scahill
. Nor various anonymous officials quoted in The New York Times
, who think we're creating more terrorists than we're killing. You'd think, reading the excerpt above, that Sullivan disagrees, and thinks Obama's kills have made us safer. Why else extol him for accomplishing what Bush didn't? The implication is that the cost of his drone strikes have been worthwhile.
But on reflection, Sullivan knows better than to presume that.
In fact, what I find most confounding is that Sullivan praises Obama for his drone kills, even though he himself has grave doubts about the strategy. Sullivan thinks that Obama's drone war in Yemen is illegal
. He's at least uncomfortable with our strikes in Pakistan too. As he put it:
The drone attacks into Pakistan are mighty close to warfare, it seems to me. There comes a point, in other words, at which a military kinetic action becomes a war. Drones are particularly dangerous instruments in this respect. They allow a president to pick war at will, and placate the public with no military casualties. This is precisely what the Founders were scared of. We have created a King with an automated army, and no Congressional or public check outside of elections, when the damage may have already been done.A bit later in the same post
Maybe the line between targeted anti-terror strikes and de facto, ongoing warfare is hard to define. Sometimes, the executive may need to act urgently and unilaterally to counter an imminent military threat. But we are so far away from that now it's almost irrelevant. I guess ongoing, routine military attacks constitute war in my book.
I do think the military/CIA distinction matters. One thing I've
learned this past decade is that the CIA is pretty much its own judge,
jury and executioner. It is much less accountable to the public, more
likely to break the laws of war and destroy the evidence, more likely to
do things that could escalate rather than ameliorate a conflict. To
read that the CIA has been given a green light to do what it wants to do
in Yemen with drones seems to me easily over the trip-wire for war that
requires Congressional buy-in.
Technology has made this more problematic. If the CIA, based on its
own intelligence, can launch a war or wars with weapons that can incur
no US fatalities, the propensity to be permanently at war, permanently
making America enemies, permanently requiring more wars to put out the
flames previous wars started, then the Founders' vision is essentially
over. I think it's a duty to make sure their vision survives this
twenty-first century test.
So what to make of all this?
I'd say it's evidence of humanity's unfortunate ability to be seduced by leaders exercising violence, even when we think that violence is immoral, illegal, and imprudent. Sullivan is, after all, celebrating Obama's drone kills and suggesting that they're part of why he deserves reelection. And yet, in more considered moments, he asserts that the drone campaign (a) violates the constitutional imperative to get Congressional permission for war; (b) constitutes the use of a technology that inclines us to blowback and permanent war; (c) effectively ends the Founders' vision; (d) empowers an unaccountable and untrustworthy agency; and (e) kills lots of innocent children.
Posts like the one Sullivan wrote, associating Obama's kill stats with his reelection and place on Mount Rushmore, are exactly the sort of thing that gives Obama a political incentive to continue the drone policy Sullivan thinks is illegal, imprudent, and a threat to the American way. I should note admiringly that almost every anti-drone argument has been linked
previously on The Daily Dish