This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.
–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.
I had been somewhat on the fence about a potential (likely?) U.S. military intervention in Syria, partly because I hadn’t been following it that closely. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading, and this post at Lawyers, Guns & Money helpfully summarizes my basic unease with what the Obama administration is proposing:
It’s not clear how this kind of attack strengthens the norm against using chemical weapons in any substantive way, and given that the response involves killing innocent people the burden of proof is on proponents to explain why this is something other than empty symbolism.
While I agree about the value of upholding the norm against the use of chemical weapons, the risks and potential downsides seem too serious and numerous to justify an attack. “When in doubt, don’t go to war” seems like a sensible principle, especially when the putative benefits are so speculative.
Here’s some other reading that I’ve found helpful:
Chris Hayes, “Here is where I stand“
Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel, “Why Attack Syria?“
Zack Beauchamp, “How Obama’s Nobel Prize Explains His Syria Policy“
Donna Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, “On Syria, a U.N. Vote Isn’t Optional“
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.
Glenn Greenwald has an astute piece today on the 2001 authorization to use force that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As he notes, the AUMF is currently being revisited, but largely for the purposes of expanding the executive’s authority to wage war.
Greenwald goes on to recount the, well, “criticism” would be putting it mildly, that Rep. Barbara Lee received as the lone vote against the AUMF in 2001.
To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies – from Fidel Castro on down.” On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both “stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans.” National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz’s denunciation that “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Michelle Malkin labelled her “treacherous” and also quoted Horowitz’s attack.
As it happens, Barbara Lee was my representative at that time–my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in 2001. And I, like most other Americans (though maybe not most Berkeleyites), disagreed with Rep. Lee’s vote against the AUMF. I even wrote to her office–a civil letter, I emphasize–criticizing her for her vote. In my mind, she was standing against bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.
I got off the “war on terror” bandwagon once it became clear that the Bush administration intended to expand it to Iraq, some time in 2002. And in retrospect, Rep. Lee seems a lot more prescient than her colleagues in foreseeing the consequences of giving the executive branch a blank check to wage war. (I wrote a blog post to this effect a few years back.)
I don’t know if it would’ve ultimately made any difference if the AUMF hadn’t passed, or if it had passed in a different form. Would that have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems unlikely to me given the confluence of the public’s (justified) anger over 9/11 and the preexisting foreign policy designs of key players in the Bush administration.
But if nothing else, Barbara Lee’s example highlights how readily Congress has abdicated its role in overseeing the conduct of foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. (Of course, the roots of this problem go back much further.) We need more Barbara Lees–people who are willing to question the rush to war and our willingness to hand over power to the president in the name of “keeping us safe.”
The “what” and the “how” are awful, and no one seems to know much about the “who” and “why” at this point. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. I recommend this post from Jesse Walker at Reason as an antidote to some of that.
I lived in the Boston area (Somerville to be exact) for about a year, and both my work and my church home were in the city. It will always have a special place in my heart. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected, and my hope is that, whatever the origin of this event turns out to be, we’ll respond in a sane way.
Whatever you think of Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the C.I.A., one thing it doesn’t seem to have accomplished is to get people to focus on the president’s authority to kill people he designates as threats. This, rather than the use of “drones” per se, is the real issue–the one that needs serious debate and critical examination. Drones are just one means by which the president can order people on the “kill-list” to be dispatched. From a rule-of-law or civil-liberties perspective, it’s irrelevant if he uses a drone–rather than a missile, or a ninja, or whatever–to do this.
Confusion on this point allows defenders of so-called targeted killing to pose as humanitarians. They point out, not without justification, that unmanned drones can be more precise and kill fewer bystanders than other forms of aerial warfare. But this point–while not unimportant–obscures the issue that clear-headed critics of the program have been harping on. That issue is ordering the killing of people–whether U.S. citizens or not–without anything resembling due process as traditionally understood, and with a great deal of secrecy and with little by way of transparency or accountability. This power, rather than the use of a particular technology, is what should really worry us and is what we need to be debating.
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!