A new NYT article sheds considerable light on the character of the Democratic Commander-in-Chief
May 29, 2012
"I am not going to play in this dirty game. This is not democracy. These elections are a joke" — Abdel Fattah, Egyptian subway worker, explaining why he cannot support either Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or Ahmed Shafik, President Hosni Mubarak’s final prime minister, in the two-candidate election runoff to determine Egypt’s next President (NYT, "Some Disdain Both Options in Egypt’s Narrowed Race," May 26, 2012).
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Last week, the journal Foreign Policy published an extraordinary article – not extraordinary because of what it says, but because of who said it. It was written by Aaron David Miller, a lifelong D.C. foreign policy bureaucrat who served as a Middle East adviser to six different Secetaries of State in Democratic and GOP administrations. Miller’s article, which compared Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on foreign policy, was entitled "Barack O’Romney," and the sub-headline said it all: "Ignore what the candidates say they’ll do differently on foreign policy. They’re basically the same man." It began this way: "If Barack Obama is reelected, he ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new secretary of state" because "despite his campaign rhetoric, Romney would be quite comfortable carrying out President Obama’s foreign policy because it accords so closely with his own."
Miller devotes himself to debunking one of the worst myths in Washington, propagated out of self-interest by conservatives and progressives alike: namely, that there is a vast and radical difference between the parties on most key issues and that bipartisanship is so tragically scarce. In the foreign policy context which is his expertise, Miller explains that — despite campaign rhetoric designed to exaggerate (or even invent) differences in order to motivate base voters — the reality is exactly the opposite:
That brings up an extraordinary fact. What has emerged in the second decade after 9/11 is a remarkable consensus among Democrats and Republicans on a core approach to the nation’s foreign policy. It’s certainly not a perfect alignment. But rarely since the end of the Cold War has there been this level of consensus. Indeed, while Americans may be divided, polarized and dysfunctional about issues closer to home, we are really quite united in how we see the world and what we should do about it.
Ever wondered why foreign policy hasn’t figured all that prominently in the 2012 election campaign? Sure, the country is focused on the economy and domestic priorities. And yes, Obama has so far avoided the kind of foreign-policy disasters that would give the Republicans easy free shots. But there’s more to it than that: Romney has had a hard time identifying Obama’s foreign-policy vulnerabilities because there’s just not that much difference between the two.
A post 9/11 consensus is emerging that has bridged the ideological divide of the Bush 43 years. And it’s going to be pretty durable. . . . As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign, Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids.
None of this is new to anyone paying attention (people like former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith long ago gleefully pointed out that Obama was doing more to entrench Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies than anything his GOP predecessors could have dreamed of achieving on their own). But what’s remarkable here is that it’s coming from someone like Aaron David Miller, a long-time member in good standing of America’s Foreign Policy Community. A proven devotee of Israeli interests, Miller is not lamenting this bipartisan consensus but celebrating it: " I, for one, am ecstatic about it." And he does so by repudiating a standard D.C. trope — that bipartisanship is woefully lacking and the parties are so very far apart — because, in the age of Obama, that trope, at least when it comes to foreign policy, Terrorism and civil liberties, has become so glaringly false as to be unsustainable (Matt Taibbi, among others, has made similar arguments in the domestic policy context: namely, that the two parties adopt wildly disparate Election Year rhetoric and campaign vows but end up serving the same interests).
Today, the New York Times has a long, detailed article about the personal role played by President Obama in the massive amount of death and destruction the U.S. has brought to the Muslim world at his direction. The article, by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, is based on interviews with "three dozen of his current and former advisers" and thus uses sources who — with a couple of exceptions — attempt to cast the Commander-in-Chief in the best and most glorious possible light. Nonetheless, the article provides as clear a picture of the character of this individual politician as any stand-alone article in some time. Earlier today, I wrote about one specific revelation from the article that I most wanted to highlight — the way in which Obama, in order to conceal the civilian casualties he causes and justify the raining down of death he orders, has re-defined "militant" to mean "all military-age males in a strike zone" – but there are numerous other revealing passages in this article meriting attention.
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The article describes in detail how "Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical" — an actual presidential-led death panel (as always in American media parlance, "Terrorist" means: individuals alleged by the U.S. Government — with no evidence, transparencey or due process — to be Terrorists). Specifically, Obama himself "insisted on approving every new name on an expanding 'kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre 'baseball cards’ of an unconventional war." In total secrecy — with no transparency or oversight of any kind — he then selects who will live and who will die. The ugliest detail about this may be the presence of one of the attendees at these death sentence meetings:
It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. . . . David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the "Terror Tuesday" meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.
In other words, the person in charge of Obama’s political fortunes attends the meetings where the Leader decrees who lives and dies. Just think about how warped that is, or what progressives would be saying if Karl Rove did that with George Bush. Here are some of the fabulous results of Obama’s sophisticated wisdom and progressive judgment that come from his death panel, including one incident that took place a mere two months after he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize:
The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an "embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with."
It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.
Beyond telling a fun joke about his drone strikes, here’s how Obama responded to the carnage he caused in Yemen:
In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only "personality" strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but "signature" strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.
But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist "signature" were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees "three guys doing jumping jacks," the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well. . . .
Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it. Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence. And in Yemen, roiled by the Arab Spring unrest, the Qaeda affiliate was seizing territory.
Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.
In the wake of massacres like the December, 2009 slaughter of dozens of women and children in Yemen, Obama has steadily escalated his drone attacks in multiple countries — not just numerically, but in terms of how indiscriminate they can be.
Many Obama fans claimed during the 2008 election that his background as a constitutional lawyer would ensure reversal of the most extremist Bush/Cheney policies, but he has instead used that background for the opposite goal:
When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was "an easy one." . . . .
Asked what surprised him most about Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, answered immediately: "He’s a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States."
No late-night wrestling with conscience for this Nobel Peace laureate. Even his most radical decision — ordering an American citizen assassinated without a whiff of due process or transparency — is "easy" for him, and he’s so very "comfortable" with ordering people killed, say his aides who believe this to be a compliment.
No article about Obama’s Terrorism policies would be complete without noting the extensive continuity between Bush/Cheney and the progressive Democratic leader:
A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Nor would it be complete without the most extremist right-wing Bush officials lavishing praise on Obama for this continuity:
Mr. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director and now an adviser to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mr. Romney, commended the president’s aggressive counterterrorism record, which he said had a "Nixon to China" quality. . . .
No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.
One of the most glaring myths progressives like to tell themselves and others is that the GOP refuses to praise Obama no matter what he does. This is patently false. Virtually every one of the most far-right neocon Bush officials — including Dick Cheney himself — has spent years now praising Obama for continuing their Terrorism policies which Obama the Senator and Presidential Candidate once so harshly denounced. Every leading GOP candidate except Ron Paul wildly praised Obama for killing U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki without a shred of due process and for continuing to drop unaccountable bombs on multiple Muslim countries.
But the most amazing thing about the quotes from Gen. Hayden — who implemented George Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program while NSA chief and then became Bush’s CIA Director — is that he actually thinks Obama has gone much too far in his secrecy obsessions:
But, [Hayden] said, "secrecy has its costs" and Mr. Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.
"This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable," Mr. Hayden said. "I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe." . . .
As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer put it today: "That Hayden, of all people, is complaining about secrecy is one measure of how far Obama has strayed from his commitment to transparency." Of course, that Hayden — George Bush’s handpicked NSA and CIA chief — has spent two years lavishing Obama with praise on the substance of his Terrorism policies demonstrates even more about who Obama is.
And then finally we have this, the most consequential aspect of the Obama legacy:
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s record has not drawn anything like the sweeping criticism from allies that his predecessor faced. John B. Bellinger III, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, said that was because Mr. Obama’s liberal reputation and "softer packaging" have protected him. "After the global outrage over Guantánamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians," said Mr. Bellinger, who supports the strikes.
As I’ve written about many times before, Obama — by leading blind-partisan Democrats and progressives to cheer for these policies rather than denounce them — has converted what were just recently highly divisive and controversial right-wing Assaults on Our Values into fully entrenched bipartisan consensus. But worse than that, he has put a prettier and more palatable face on extremely ugly policies.
Recall the 2010 CIA Report, leaked to WikiLeaks, which discussed how Barack Obama was the key asset for preventing Western European populations from abandoning war policies in Afghanistan. That’s because with Obama, rather than the swaggering cowboy George Bush, as the face of these wars, they would be more effectively marketed. That is precisely what Obama has done to the American citizenry with regard to what was recently known in Democratic Party circles as the Radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism agenda.
Just to underscore the level of right-wing extremism which Obama has normalized, consider his deceitful re-definition of the term "militant" to encompass "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," which I wrote about earlier today. In 2006, the pro-Israel activist Alan Dershowitz created a serious scandal when he argued – mostly in order to justify Israeli aggression — that "civilian causalties" are a "gray area" because many people in close proximity to Terrorists — even if not Terrorists themselves — are less than innocent ("A new phrase should be introduced into the reporting and analysis of current events in the Middle East: 'the continuum of civilianality’ . . . . Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others").
Even more repellent was John Podhoretz’s argument in 2006 that "the tactical mistake" which "we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything," specifically that the real error was that the U.S. permitted "the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35." In other words, "all military-age males" in Sunni areas should have been deemed "combatants" and thus killed. Podhoretz’s argument created all sorts of outrage in progressive circles: John Podhoretz is advocating genocide!
But this is precisely the premise that President Obama himself has now adopted in order to justify civilian deaths and re-classify them as "militants." Here is the rationale of Obama officials as described by the NYT: "people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good." Probably up to no good. That’s a direct replica of Dershowitz’s argument, and is closely related to Podhoretz’s. They count someone as a "militant" — worthy of death — based purely on the happenstance of where they are and the proximity they’re in to someone else they suspect is a Bad Person. If such a person is killed by a U.S. missile, then, by definition, they are "militants," not "civilians" — even if we don’t know the first thing about them, including their name.
That’s official Obama policy. It won’t even be reported on most MSNBC shows, and won’t even be acknowledged, let alone denounced, by the vast majority of Democrats, including progressives. That’s the Obama legacy.
And it’s all justified by this definitively warped premise: we have to keep doing things we know will result in large-scale civilian deaths in order to stop the Terrorists, who are really terrible because they keep killing civilians. Besides, continuously killing a bunch of foreigners is hardly some reflection on our President’s character, especially in an Election Year.
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Note how the Obama administration clearly wanted this discussion to appear in the New York Times — believing that depictions of Obama as Brave Warrior would result in political gain – even as they continue to insist to federal courts that their actions cannot be subject to judicial review because national security would be jeopardized if they were forced to acknowledge these programs in a judicial proceeding.
UPDATE: As John Santore correctly notes — and he confirmed it with both Shane and Becker — Axelrod attends the "Tuesday Terror" meetings where decisions are made about who will die, not the larger teleconference calls where "nominations" are made. It doesn’t change the point at all, but the way I quoted the NYT article gave the incorrect impression that Axelrod attends the latter, not the former. It’s the other way around.