Saturday, May 25, 2013

President Obama's Speech on National Security and My Comments Upon It


Friday morning I was delighted, or perhaps just relieved, to read of President Obama’s speech about national security. I believe the Obama takes seriously political ideas, especially the ideas that support and maintain our Republic. His actions, however, don’t always reflect the values that I think he understands and appreciates. I think that like all presidents, he’s concerned about the limits of his political power. Yes, even an FDR or an LBJ, consummate political dealers (which Obama is not), pursued political goals when they thought that they could succeed or when even failure was worth the prize. Clinton, I think, operated in the same manner. We witness the tug between what a president wants to do and what he (so far) thinks that he can do. Obama, having staked out a saner, more constitutionally grounded policy, will probably not back-off this course. He’s stayed far too close to the Bush era policies thus far in his presidency, and he’s kept us in Afghanistan too long. However, now I think that he feels the strength to break free of the inertia and the fear all Democrats seem to have (unjustified) of being “soft on national security”. Following the example of James Fallows (a highly trustworthy commentator), I will add my comments to Obama’s speech below. (Portions of Obama’s speech are in italics.) The President began his speech with a history of America, the Cold War, and then our post-9/11 conflicts. Upon concluding his brief history, he quickly came to what I consider the heart of his speech:

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings nor stamp out every danger to our open society.

I’m afraid that this struggle has defined us, and we will have to work to free ourselves from its embrace. Some Republicans (see comments by Senator Chambliss for a disturbing example: "The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory") don’t want to see an end to it, but I think that most Americans will appreciate what Obama is saying here. 

The quote of Madison is perfect. It makes a point that needs repeating over and over. It should become our mantra. 

The final statement in this portion of the speech is for “the grown-ups” as James Fallows put it quite aptly. The insight is worthy of Niebuhr, whom Obama says he admires. It shows through in this sentence in particular.

Whether it’s a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America’s confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history. Deranged or alienated individuals, often U.S. citizens or legal residents, can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

This is a crucial point: it’s not Islam or “Muslim radicals” or “jihadists” that we have to fear. Alas, it’s a much broader spectrum of alienated and violent individuals and organizations. Some have explicitly political agendas, often vaguely formed ideas, and some none at all. While shooters at Newtown, Aurora, or the Giffords speech may not have had a political agenda, I think that they share some underlying motivations with overtly ideological jihadists and the radical American political right. (See my previous post for more on this topic.) 

America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense.

Obama has an argument, but one that weakens with each day that has passed since 9/11. The Iraq war was not justified, and our continued efforts in Afghanistan may no longer have justification, the undoubted good that we do (e.g., education of girls and women) notwithstanding. We must always weigh the benefit of any good against the harm that we do. Certainly, in the eyes of much of the world our continued actions in the Muslim world are no longer justified and cause too much “collateral damage”, our euphemism for killing innocents.  

And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it.

The discussion and judgments that justify death and destruction can never prove final and must receive constant review and consideration. It’s also of extreme importance that military effectiveness not ever serve as the sole benchmark of a policy. At best, it may serve as a factor, but the underlying moral and legal justification for an action must never become subordinate to military expediency. 

Obama hits a note that needs repeating: self-restraint in the exercise of power is the most important use of a power. One of the reasons that the infant American Republic succeeded as a political entity comes from the model that George Washington established by abjuring power. His action complimented the constraints of power written into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. (See Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment.) 

For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone or with a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

Obama shouldn’t have needed to say this, but he did need to. Now we have to attend to the details. 

But the high threshold that we’ve set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens. This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.

An important point: it’s not just about us. The line between government as a legitimate political organization and a criminal organization is finer than we’d like to think (see St. Augustine on this subject). Governments, to maintain morality (and therefore legitimacy on the world stage) must recognize human rights, not just citizen rights. 

I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root. And in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war through drones or special forces or troop deployments will prove self- defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.

No, mere force can’t assure our safety, and as he suggests later in our speech, nothing can. We can reduce risk, but we can’t eliminate it. He also recognizes that continued random, secret, and unbridled use of force “will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways”. Ever one of us should ponder the significance of these words. 

[T]he next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. And moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.

This is a “vast and complex undertaking”, and therefore one that we should approach with unwavering humility. Reducing the threat of terrorism is not simply a matter of addressing poverty or of dealing with a particular religion or any one issue. It’s a matter of responding to a deep, complex fabric of social realities and ideas. Indeed, in mentioning “poverty and sectarian hatred” I think that President Obama has only identified the tip of the iceberg. The last sentence of this portion of the speech begs a question: how much of this should be a matter of “we make the effort”? Perhaps the wisest course is to let these nations and peoples find their own course without much participation from the U.S. I’m no isolationist, but I consider myself a realist who appreciates the limits of power and knowing when to limit loses and void bad bets. 

The original premise for opening Gitmo, that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention, was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people, almost a million dollars per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another 200 million (dollars) to keep Gitmo open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home and when the Pentagon is struggling is struggling with sequester and budget cuts.

Gitmo is the albatross that we wear around our necks as a nation. It has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” What an awful truth to have to acknowledge! It’s happened before. War does that, for instance, the internment of Japanese-American during WWII. Other examples abound during the Cold War as well. (See Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency & the National Security State.

The President also remarks about the irony of spending on obscene amount of money to keep prisoners there. We cut millions of dollars of government expenditures that could have been used to help Americans in order to accomplish . . . what? To maintain a shameful thing? To display our fear? (For, I believe, Gitmo could have been closed long ago if fear of maintaining prisoners hadn’t stopped the process from going forward.) Another shameful truth. 

As president, I have tried to close Gitmo. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States. These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from Gitmo with Congress’ support. When I ran for president the first time, John McCain supported closing Gitmo. This was a bipartisan issue.

Is there such a thing anymore as a “bi-partisan issue”? Frankly, both parties can place electoral advantage over the greater good, but the current group that refers to itself as the Republican Party (I’m now thinking that they’re really illegitimate imposters) has taken the preference for partisan advantage over the greater good and principled reasoning to new lows. 

No person has ever escaped one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States – ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees there in our prisons. And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaida’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that it should – should have never been opened.


Today I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked -- (applause) -- I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions.

Now, even after we take these steps, one issue will remain, which is how to deal with those Gitmo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks but who cannot be prosecuted, for example, because the evidence against them has been compromise or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

This sounds good but it’s going to be hard. Any self-incriminating statements are excluded from evidence when gained under torture, and we have tortured. I’m all for finding a way, but what I think will happen is that a lot of dirty laundry will get aired in such a process. Perhaps this is what we need to do to cure and purge ourselves of such acts of barbarism. 

And I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future 10 years from now or 20 years from now when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.

Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me [more about her later] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?

Why is “the politics hard”? 

I like the way Obama has us consider this issue from the future: what kind of mess, what kind of pile of crap, do we want to leave to the future because we didn’t have the fortitude to face-up to our actions and their consequences? Do we want to leave this to our children? I don’t. 

And now we need a strategy and a politics that reflects this resilient spirit. Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school, immigrants coming to our shores, fans taking in a ballgame, a veteran starting a business, a bustling city street, a citizen shouting her concerns at a president. The quiet determination, that strength of character and bond of fellowship, that refutation of fear -- that is both our sword and our shield.

An admirable goal. Can we realize it? The last sentence hits the bull’s eye, but I don’t know that we’re there. Closing Gitmo will serve as one indicator. 

And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots and deranged madmen and ruthless demagogues who litter history, the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries, to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad. And that flag will still stand for freedom.

Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America. 

This peroration is strong, but I have some reservations. Should our flag stand for “freedom”? Isn’t freedom an instrumental value, one that only serves other ends? Isn’t worship of freedom idolatry? Perhaps we should say that our flag stands for the United States of America, where people live in freedom under law in order to pursue the good things in life. It’s not as catchy, but I hope that it’s more accurate and avoids the idolatry of freedom alone. 

The following is the inter-change between Obama and a protester during the course of the speech. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Excuse me, President Obama, you are the commander in chief -- (off mic) -- (applause) --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Today -- so -- (sustained applause) -- so let me finish, ma’am. So today -- so today, once again, today --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Off mic) -- for (102 ?) people -- (off mic) -- people’s rights, these desperate people -- (off mic) --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m about to address, ma’am, but you got -- you got to let me speak. I’m about to address it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: -- (off mic) -- our commander in chief --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me address it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Our commander in chief -- (off mic) -- Guantanamo Bay --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Why don’t you let me address it, ma’am.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Why don’t you sit down and I’ll tell you exactly what I’m going to do.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Ma’am -- thank you. You should let me finish my sentence.
. . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16-year-old -- (inaudible) --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- when we --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: -- killed by you?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- we went --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old -- (inaudible)?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: He -- he -- he went on to --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Why was he killed?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- we went --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible) -- apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home.
I love my country! I love the rule of law! The drones are making us less safe.
And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantanamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law -- (inaudible) --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I think that the -- and I’m going off script, as you might expect, here. (Laughter, applause.) The -- the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. (Applause.) Obviously -- obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said.

I think that President Obama handled this exchange well, and I have to compliment him for his statement (as the Secret Service hustled her from the hall) that “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.” Yes. She asked some very legitimate questions and raised some very legitimate points, although I also think that he’s correct that she wasn’t listening and she instead played the prepared tape that she had in her mind. She raises these issues in a way that’s not socially polite or acceptable to most persons, but this raises an even more important issue. Have these issues been appropriately raised and addressed in our political discourse? I fear the answer is “no”. We have not entered into a full-scale debate on these issues, and this is the great benefit of the President’s speech: he’s put the issues on the table for political discussion. In an ideal republic, this dialogue would have begun at the start and continued until the matter resolved. But we live far from an ideal discourse community. While we have more media than ever and little legal restriction on speech, I still sense that we have a conspiracy of silence on too many issues. Such conspiracies are probably old as democracy, if not older, so it’s not new, so it’s a battle I think that we have to fight constantly. Following Hannah Arendt, I believe the essence of politics (and law) is speech, and I subscribe to the ideal of Jürgen Habermas of creating an environment of free, uninhibited discourse, but we’re far from that. Sometimes we have to shout to receive a hearing, while some resort to violence, the failure of politics and law. To the extent that we have to shout at one another, not to mention resorting to violence, we suffer a failure of politics and receive instead an exhibition of force. We need to have more seats at the table for those who question, and that’s something that all of should insist upon.

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