Via Matt Welch, behold the ne plus ultra of Obama counterterror apologetics courtesy of “New Yorker” contributor Jane Mayer. The next time The One launches a war that even his own lawyers think is illegal or drops a bomb on someone in Yemen because their movements are suspicious or detains someone indefinitely without trial, know this:
He’s pretty broken up about it.
One first impression left by President Obama’s much-anticipated speech re-casting U.S. counterterrorism policy is that of the contrast between Bush’s swagger and Obama’s anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society. It could scarcely be starker. While Bush frequently seemed to take action without considering the underlying questions, Obama appears somewhat unsure of exactly what actions to take. That is not a bad thing: at least he is asking the right questions. In fact, by suggesting that, after a decade and seven thousand American and countless foreign lives lost, and a trillion dollars spent, it might be time to start downsizing the “war on terror,” he is leading the national debate beyond where even most Democrats have dared to go…
Obama agonized over other limitations, too. Bush’s lawyers propounded the astonishingly radical theory that, as Commander-in-Chief, a President couldn’t be limited by domestic or international law. His lawyers dubbed it “the New Paradigm” and reasoned that if national security was at stake, no other legal constraints could stand in the President’s way. The Geneva Conventions became optional, cast aside as “quaint.” Obama embraced both constitutional and international legal limits, at least in principle, even as he struggled to define them in practice. In fact, his speech was a paean to the theory of “just war,” which requires a balance between means and ends, demanding proportionality whenever the state resorts to the use of force. It’s a sophisticated and nuanced moral theory, on which the law of conflict rests. Obama has openly grappled with the most difficult questions posed by the most serious thinkers in this area…
Obama’s evident pain over the [drone] program, whose civilian deaths he said would “haunt” him and his command “as long as we live,” seemed a telling change from the secrecy and winking smugness of the past.
That last line, with the sneer about “winking smugness,” is the tell. Memory-freshener: Bush waterboarded a grand total of three jihadis, one of whom was the mastermind behind 9/11, and bien-pensants like Mayer treated it as the end of the world. Obama’s liquidated four American citizens by drone strike, only one of whom by the admission of his own Attorney General was actually plotting terror attacks, but he’s “agonized” and “struggled” and “grappled” and suffered “anguish” over it, and, well, that’s sort of admirable. Bush was a dim, “incurious,” smirking chimp whereas Bambi can quote you passages from Niebuhr; their actions may be similar but their intellectual attitudes are different, and that’s what’s important.
What you’re seeing here is essentially David Brooks’s infamous admiration for the crease in Obama’s pants transported to the realm of counterterrorism. I can’t decide which aspect of it is most repulsive. Is it the solipsism involved in focusing on O’s inner turmoil while he’s busy firing missiles at people whose role in terrorism he hasn’t even confirmed? Is it the lazy caricature of Bush she falls back on in order to make Obama compare more favorably? Is it the very typical left-wing primacy given to intentions over results? Or is it the sense Mayer conveys that she’s trying to talk herself into believing this, to resolve the cognitive dissonance she feels between “knowing” that the Unicorn Prince is the opposite of the last guy and the fact that, in this particular area of policy, he’s a lot more similar to Bush than he is different?
It’s not just Mayer, either:
Welch is aghast in his post at the liberal transformation from screeching anti-warriors five years ago to boosters of “contemplative” hawkishness today. Quote: “Always remember this point, next time we have a Republican president. Democrats are, at best, temporary doves.” Absolutely true — polling data has confirmed it many times — but that’s to be expected, their preening self-righteousness during the Bush years notwithstanding. They’re not skeptics of government power, as Welch and other libertarians are; on the contrary. They’re skeptics of Republican power over government. Remove that power and install a liberal who’s “cerebral” with a “first-class temperament” and they’re perfectly willing to trust him, even when he’s bombing the hell out of people on no more than an educated guess that they’re bad guys. Some liberals have been quite candid about that. They trust him. Jane Mayer trusts him. They’re not as concerned about legal and structural limits on executive power with O in command because they trust that he’ll willingly restrain his own power before he goes too far. That’s what yesterday’s speech was really about, I take it — signalling to his base, whose support he needs right now in the midst of Scandalmania, that he’s still a contemplative, cerebral, cool-tempered C-in-C even when he’s mulling sending weapons to Syrian rebels who are filthy with jihadis in their ranks. Message: He cares. And no matter what ugly things might turn up in the next few weeks or months, he’ll still be That Guy that they thought he was circa 2008. Between Mayer’s apologia and MSNBC’s drivel, looks like it went over like gangbusters with the target audience.