Sullivan, Obama, and Elections
Let me get this out of the way first. I like Andrew Sullivan, appreciate a lot of the work he produces, and can cite the Dish as an enormous triumph in blogging that is both insightful and entertaining. Now then, with that praise entered into the official record, onto the controversy.
Sullivan has already gotten a lot of pushback for his recent Newsweek cover story. Yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf went on to criticize the piece, “Why are Obama’s Critics so Dumb?” at length, by asking a question of his own: “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?”
Friedersdorf further points out what I think is the primary problem with the argument at the center of Sullivan’s article,
“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.”
Our own Ryan Bonneville makes a similar critique,
“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.”
What frustrates me most about Sullivan’s now widely circulated piece is how lazy it is in parsing through the reasoning that is implicit in putting certain policy priorities above others.It’s not enough just to claim that one thinks stopping torture should be President Obama’s top priority, even to the exclusion of all others, as Sullivan did in his original essay,
“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.”
First of all, one can criticize the President, and his policies, without going to the next step and actually withdrawing support for him. The blogosphere recently re-learned this lesson with liberal backlash against Ron Paul sympathizers. One can rightfully acknowledge that Ron Paul is making a much needed and trenchant critique of current liberal and conservative foreign policy without necessarily supporting his actual Presidential bid. If Sullivan really does oppose the President on various issues, and exceptionally so in some instances, he should pay due attention to them rather than sweeping such disagreements under the rug owing to some previous set of cost/benefit calculations which Sullivan himself has already gone through.
Obama’s disavowing of torture was in no way to the exclusion of other civil liberty priorities. It was not an either, or. He could have done that and all of the above. It doesn’t make sense to consider the issue of torture, indefinite detention, and the indistinct nature of undeclared wars and unending occupations, part of some zero-sum game. This zero-sum practice, however, comes in part from conflating campaigning with governance.
Elections are zero-sum. Either Obama or his Republican challenger will win. And one must decide their vote on the merits as constrained by that either/or scenario. Two men enter, one man leaves. But while that zero-sum cost/benefit analysis applies to Obama as candidate, it is not appropriate for evaluating Obama as President. In that respect, one can’t look at what President Obama did and accomplished, and compare that with what a prospective Romney or Gingrich might do.
A more appropriate comparison would be the one Friedersdorf makes,
“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?”
Of course, an even better comparison might be between the actual President Obama, and one’s ideal President working under similar constraints and pressures. Now the precise nature of these constraints and pressures are always hard to measure. Congress is a complicated beast, and centuries of research and reporting have proven that representative body to be nearly indecipherable. This is why I am always hesitant to blame a President for “his” domestic record, a project of which he is at best a co-manager.
For these reasons it is much easier to look at a President’s foreign policy and executive governance when directly evaluating them. And from conducting unauthorized acts of war in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, to the continued evisceration of due process for suspected terrorists as well as their assassination when overseas, even when they are American citizens, President Obama’s record is one of militaristic excess and undue secrecy.
The Obama doctrine as it exists in practice could be said to include the killing, via fire from the heavens, of anyone suspected of being a terrorist, or of associating with terrorists, in areas designated as war zones, which are themselves defined in part by their being suspected terrorists in that area. This is but one of the many foreign policy catch-22s that were constructed under the Bush administration and continue to flourish, sometimes exceedingly so, under the reign of Obama.
In response to both Friedersdorf and Bonneville, Sullivan today wrote,
“In wartime, I believe the government has a right to find and kill those who are waging war against us, if it is impossible to capture them. I don’t think wartime decisions like that need be completely transparent – or can be, if we are to succeed. And I think Obama has succeeded remarkably quickly in this new kind of war. He has all but wiped out al Qaeda by drone attacks and the Afghanistan surge. And his success makes these repugnant wartime excesses things that, in a second term, he could ratchet back. Even Bush ratcheted back in his second term.
But my primary issue has always been torture – the cancer it introduces into our legal, moral and civilizational bloodstream. That has gone. More will, if Obama continues to win this war and gains strength against the authoritarian pro-torture GOP by being re-elected.”
Thus, for Sullivan, Obama’s actions are not his alone, but those demanded by “wartime.” A “wartime” that has lasted over a decade, and shows no signs of ever coming to an end. And it is in fact one of Obama’s successes that he has been able to prosecute this war so rapidly since taking office by putting the Afghanistan occupation into overdrive and utilizing the extremely controversial, extra-judicial drone policy which, in addition to being responsible for the deaths of many innocent men, women, and children, was not important enough to evaluate or discuss in Sullivan’s original article.
Is Obama the “Lesser of two evils in this respect?” According to Sullivan, “Yes.” And when compared with his potential Republican challenger, I would have to agree.
But what about when compared with himself? Do Obama’s domestic successes, to the degree they can be called his accomplishments, make up for his “wartime” excesses? Perhaps. But I am not convinced. And for I and many other Obama skeptics, Sullivan needs to actually explain why passing health care, stimulus, etc. and disavowing torture is enough to make up for accelerating the degradation of our civil liberties and the institutionalization of civilian deaths outside of declared war.