Critiquing Andrew Sullivan’s Critique of Critiques
Andrew Sullivan has written a long piece for the magazine version of Newsweek responding to the prevailing critiques of Obama from both the right and left. He charges that the criticisms aren’t just “out of bounds” but “simply – empirically – wrong”.
First, I will say something nice. I think his critique of the right is pretty good. The notion that Obama is some left-wing ideologue dragging the country kicking and screaming into a socialist dystopia is so at odds with reality that it doesn’t even merit a response, but Sullivan somehow finds the energy to give it one. That he can do it without even once using the word “moron” is probably a credit to his character.
His response to the left’s criticisms of Obama’s domestic policy also seems pretty much right. As Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and the rest of the Beltway Brain Trust will tell you over and over again (whether you actually want them to or not) is that Barack Obama can’t legislate by fiat and he can’t give a speech that will magically produce 60 votes in the Senate. (Note: I am leaving aside the question of whether he should give more forceful speeches anyway, use the bully pulpit, etc.) And, even, leaving that aside, I am not a good water bearer for this set of critiques. I am skeptical of the power of stimulus and somewhat lukewarm on the bailouts. Should middle class mortgage-holders have gotten some kind of bailout of their own? Of course, but that doesn’t mean the banks shouldn’t also have.
Don’t get me wrong. I do hate Obama’s style. I think he has badly misread the moment, and his persistent need to seek compromise and bipartisanship with Congress has been a real tactical error. The way he almost completely caved during the debt ceiling negotiation was infuriating, but ultimately it seems to have done little real damage to the country. It remains the case that a more forceful Obama would make the left feel better but probably would not accomplish much more in advancing liberal policy goals.
Now, enough being nice. Sullivan seems to realize that his case against the left’s foreign policy argument is not very strong. Here is the entirety of his position (in a four-page article):
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). 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 reelected, that cancer may well return. Indeed, many on the right appear eager for it to return.
The two things he mentions are bad enough (even without noting that we shouldn’t have to rely on the president’s benevolence in not enforcing laws that shouldn’t exist in the first place). Illegal wars and indefinite detention were, after all, two of the things the left (and Sullivan) spent most of the Bush administration screaming about!
What’s worse is what Sullivan ignores. Authority to unilaterally assassinate US citizens? Secret drone strikes – and the resulting “collateral damage” – without any consultation with the American people about exactly how they serve our strategic interest? And, while it’s not precisely foreign policy, I’m throwing the massive ramp-up (to record annual levels) of deportations in here too. This is not a record that any liberal should be proud of, even if we imagine a hypothetical long game of eleven dimensional chess (meep meep).
I don’t really begrudge anyone who chooses to support Obama in the upcoming election because he’s the lesser of two evils. That he is better than Romney is unequivocally the case. (Nor, to be fair, do I begrudge anyone who supports Romney because he’s the more conservative candidate. That is also the case, even once we leave off this nonsense about Obama’s secret socialist plans to bankrupt the universe.) I do begrudge liberals who support Obama without an honest assessment of just how much of a disaster his foreign policy has been for liberalism.