The counter-terrorism policy outlined in the president’s speech today hardly describes my ideal approach, but most, if not all, of the changes he’s made or is proposing are steps in the right direction. These include
–continuing the reduction in the number of combat troops in Afghanistan,
–declassifying information on Americans killed in drone strikes,
–reviewing proposals for additional oversight of the targeted killing program,
–putting stronger protections in place against government overreach in investigating leaks,
–revising and ultimately repealing the authorization to use military force (AUMF), and
–closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and finding a way to deal with the detainees there that is more consistent with the rule of law.
In general, the president was describing a further shift away from the grand “global war on terror” paradigm that he inherited from the Bush administration, and toward treating terrorism as a more discrete, targeted problem. Citing America’s experience in the 80s and 90s, he suggested that terrorism can be dealt with in a more piecemeal fashion rather than as a broad existential struggle.
Needless to say, everything hinges on whether Obama makes good on these changes, and even if he does, there will still be plenty to criticize about the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. (In particular, I’m still a skeptic of the targeted killing program, even with additional oversight.) But I do find it heartening that all these changes are in the direction of a less aggressive, more constrained approach.
I didn’t even watch the inaugural festivities live on TV, much less attend them in person. But I did catch the president’s speech in re-runs, and like many others I thought it provided a persuasive articulation of his brand of pragmatic progressivism. It’s not a creed I fully share, but in terms of current American political possibilities, it certainly beats the alternatives. Four more years!
I voted today–D.C. started early voting last Monday–and, not surprisingly, I pulled the lever (or rather pushed the touchscreen) for the Obama-Biden ticket.
This wasn’t at all a hard decision. On every issue I care about, the Romney-Ryan G.O.P. is significantly worse than the Democrats. And this includes those areas where Obama has most disappointed–peace, civil liberties, and (to a lesser extent) the environment. Since 2008, the Republican Party has only intensified its commitment to Devil-take-the-hindmost economics, foreign policy belligerence, and particularly atavistic elements of social conservatism.
Obama has, best as I can tell, done pretty well with the hand he’s been dealt, at least with regard to domestic policy. (The president has a much freer hand in foreign affairs, so I judge him more harshly here.) Despite Republican intransigence, he managed to pull the economy out of a death spiral, make historically large investments in clean energy and infrastructure, and establish, at least at the level of principle, a federal commitment to universal health care. I give at least some credence to Left-wing critics of Obama who say he’s been too soft on Wall Street or that he should’ve pushed harder for the public option, but looking at the big picture, he’s got a strong claim to being the most successful liberal president since LBJ.
More importantly, though, the vision that the Democrats still represent, and that I embrace, is that government has a indispensable role to play in establishing the conditions for individuals to flourish. The Dems want to preserve and strengthen the welfare state; the G.O.P. wants to dismantle–privatize, federalize, “voucherize”–it. Democrats think collective action is necessary to fight climate change; most Republicans won’t even admit climate change is happening. Democrats think that some degree of regulation and redistribution is necessary to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and reduce inequality; Republicans decry this modest vision of a mixed economy–a vision more conservative than the one embraced by most center-Right parties in Western Europe–as “socialism.” Heck, there even now seems to be a debate about whether there’s a proper federal role for disaster relief!
Some progressives have argued that Obama is too compromised –too cozy with big business, too promiscuous in his use of deadly military force–to support. And these criticisms have merit. But what I haven’t seen is a plausible account of how an Obama defeat (which ineluctably means a Romney victory) would strengthen the hand of progressives in building the kind of society they want. (The Bush years, for example, were not exactly a high-water mark for progressivism.)
When it comes right down to it, I’m probably less left-wing than many of Obama’s progressive critics. But I want to move things in the same general direction they do. And the last four years have seen movement in that direction, even if not as consistently or as quickly as we might all like. I think that a Romney victory would probably spell doom for that progress, however incremental and timid you may think it’s been. An Obama victory, on the other hand, is a chance to consolidate and build on it. That’s enough to get my vote.
The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn must have a low opinion of religious people. That’s the only way I can explain her assertion that, because he dropped a platitudinous reference to “the Creator” during last night’s debate, Mitt Romney has captured the “God vote.” Weirdly, Quinn admits that President Obama often talks about his own Christian faith but says that he hasn’t done it in a debate. (There’s only been one!) Quinn says, without offering anything by way of evidence, that Obama needs to “wear God” like a lapel pin if he wants to woo the 85 percent of voters who say they believe in God.
Surely she knows that there must be substantial overlap between this “85 percent” and the roughly half of voters who went for Obama in 2008 and that say they’re going to again? And that many of these people might not need Obama to constantly drop references to the Almighty in order for him to show that he shares their values?
What I think was going on in Romney’s “we are endowed by our Creator with our rights” line was that he was echoing a bizarre (and demonstrably false) meme on the Right that the president intentionally omits the reference to “the Creator” whenever he quotes or paraphrases the opening lines of the Declaration. There’s a strain of conservative Christianity that maintains that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” and that secular liberals are always trying to efface this fact.
Ironically, the “God” of Americanist Christianity looks a lot more like a primitive tribal deity than the God of biblical theism. It’s a step backwards toward what H. Richard Niebuhr (and others) have called “henotheism”: a form of faith that “regards the limited group as the center of value, and it values people and things according to how they serve the group’s ends” (as theologian Douglas Ottati summarizes it). In its American variant, God exists to underwrite the American project.
By contrast, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” insists on “equality because all people are equally related to the one universal center of value.” Abraham Lincoln captured the spirit of radical monotheism when he reflected that “the Almighty has His own purposes,” which couldn’t be straightforwardly identified with the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. In the Bible, God’s preferential love for his people (Israel or the church) is tempered by a “prophetic” call to extend that love beyond the bounds of the group.
When we use God as a political prop or a tribal marker, we’re committing what the Bible calls idolatry–putting a creature, whether it be the self or the group, above the Creator.
Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)
Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:
The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.
To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.
To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)
The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.
The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.
I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”
Luban hones in on some of the thornier issues surrounding the targeted killing program: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, the question of proportionality, and whether “the decision-making process is based on a genuinely skeptical, probing structure, with a heavy burden of proof on those proposing a killing and an institutionalized ‘devil’s advocate’ to argue against each and every deadly ‘nomination.’” Despite recent reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, “the process still remains essentially shrouded in fog.”
Assuming that it’s permissible to use force in self-defense, Luban says, “targeted killings” aren’t necessarily immoral per se. “If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call ‘indiscriminate’ and a war crime.”
Among this welter of arguments about targeted killing, the genuine issues of principle are whether self-defense requires it and proportionality permits it. The question of where the zone of combat ends and civilian rules begin is important, but it is a question of line-drawing, not of moral principle. If self-defense is a just cause of war, and if killing is necessary for self-defense (a big if), then targeted killing is permissible–provided that it targets only enemy fighters, keeps civilian casualties low, and actually does more good than harm in defending ourselves.
But this last one is a “far from a settled question,” Luban says, because the drone war may be creating more terrorists than it kills due to, for example, the radicalizing of Yemenis angered by the drone attacks. Add to this worries about the “opacity and unaccountability” of the program, and it’s far from clear that it is, on balance, a good idea.
If you follow writers associated with what I’ll broadly call the “disaffected Left,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are few if any substantive differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both, we’re told, are content with the corporate plutocracy, support a hawkish foreign policy and an ever-expanding surveillance state, are open to making cuts to entitlement programs, and generally do not present significantly different choices for the future of American society.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll get into a common litany of betrayals that Obama has perpetrated: the expansion of drone warfare, continuation of Bush-era civil liberties abuses, a timid and incremental approach to health-care reform, and excessive obsequiousness to Wall Street being among the most often cited.
And there’s truth to virtually all of this! Obama hasn’t governed as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal nor has he transcended partisan animosity to usher in a new era of beyond-red-and-blue politics. He’s done stuff that anyone on the “Left,” broadly defined, should oppose. I personally have been most disappointed in his record on civil liberties and foreign affairs, but I also agree with much of the left-wing criticism of his domestic and economic policies.
All that said, however, there remain significant differences between Obama and Romney that will have major effects on people’s lives, depending on who’s elected. Here’s Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog to summarize:
Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.
Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.
Now Kilgore is a longtime Democratic strategist, but even allowing for some partisan cheerleading, this seems about right to me. Although he wants to tinker with it in a (possibly misguided) attempt to make it more fiscally sustainable, Obama accepts and even defends the basic post-New Deal social compact. The Romney-Ryan G.O.P., however, is a different story. In fact, opposition to the New Deal–and its principle that the government should ensure a basic level of economic security–is arguably the animating impulse of the modern conservative movement.
Similarly with foreign policy. Do I wish Obama was more dovish? Why, yes I do. But there are still important differences between his brand of liberal internationalism and the vision of unilateral hegemony favored by conservatives. And these are literally differences of life and death, possibly for many thousands of people.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone is morally obliged to vote for Obama. But there are real differences between the candidates, even if not as many–or as significant–as we might like.
I haven’t been following the Republican primaries all that closely–partly because it’s too depressing, but also in part because I’ve been convinced virtually from the get-go that Mitt Romney will ultimately be the nominee. Nevertheless, what’s apparent even to the casual observer is that the G.O.P. intends to rerun the playbook they used in the 2008 election by attempting to brand Barack Obama as fundamentally un-American.
Romney thinks Obama wants to turn America into a “European-style welfare state”; Newt Gingrich is convinced (or wants to convince us) that the president is a “Saul Alinsky radical.” Obama, we’re told, intends to preside over the United States’ “decline” into a second-tier power, relinquishing our status as the global hegemon.
If this was unconvincing as an attack on candidate Obama in 2008–and the voters seemed to agree that it was–how much less convincing is it against President Obama in 2012? After all, the Obama Administration’s first term has, if anything, confirmed the hopes (or suspicions) of those of us who always saw Obama as essentially a center-left pragmatist, if an unusually charismatic and eloquent one. From the economics of “austerity-lite” to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the escalation of the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Obama has rarely strayed from the centrist playbook, for better or worse (and in my view it’s been a little bit of both).
I guess what I find so dispiriting about this is that it’s virtually impossible to have a good-faith debate about the problems facing the country when one party is attacking what amounts to a fantasy version of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Moreover, when the president is perpetually under the burden to prove that he’s not a “radical” or “socialist,” genuinely liberal or progressive ideas become that much more marginalized. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the point.