A Qualified Defense of Obama

Andrew Sullivan's defense of Obama is incomplete but compelling.

Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover piece is one of the best defenses of the Obama presidency I’ve read, echoing many of my own beliefs about the president. On healthcare, I think the Affordable Care Act was the wrong policy at the right time – the best step we could have taken with the political system we have and almost certainly a step in the right direction. Our nation’s healthcare status quo is a disaster, and the poorly termed “Obamacare” pushes the needle in the right direction – though there are miles to go before we sleep.

Indeed, on domestic policy I agree almost entirely with Sullivan. The president did all he could do given the disposition of congress, the economic straights we found ourselves floundering in, and the reality of politics in America. Perhaps he wasn’t forceful enough in his condemnation of the Republican obstructionism. Perhaps he’s playing a long game as Sullivan suggests. Certainly he has surprised us all before. And certainly his political calculations are based on a very different set of information than we have available.

Like Conor Friedersdorf and Ryan Bonneville and others, my quibble with Sullivan’s piece comes when the discussion revolves from domestic to foreign policy. Both Conor and Ryan pointed out that Andrew was far too quick to gloss over Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record. I agree.

On assassination of US citizens, the NDAA, the war on drugs, and a handful of other issues, Obama has been a huge disappointment. I understand that the politics of foreign policy and the drug war are complex and difficult to fathom. And I do, on some level, forgive Obama’s decisions here. He works within the constraints of the American political scene. He can’t appear weak on defense. If anything will sink his chance at reelection, a weakness at defense will.

Andrew’s response to civil libertarians was not dismissive, but incomplete:

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 racheted 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.

Lesser of two evils in this respect? Yes.

Well…yes and no. The end of torture is undeniably a good thing, and something that would be once again revoked by a Romney or a Gingrich or a Santorum, all three of whom have vowed to waterboard if given the chance. When it comes to the question of lesser of two evils, Obama is almost certainly a lesser evil than any of these three. And on domestic policy he is far preferable to Ron Paul, the only Republican who would be more liberal on matters of civil liberty and war.

I also understand that in writing a defense of the president, Sullivan was less interested in attacking him at length on these abuses of power. To Sullivan, the defense of Obama is more important than offering up an extended critique of the president. Sullivan – and I’m with him on this – is worried about a return of Republicans to the White House. The prospects of a Romney or a Gingrich presidency are truly frightening. Everything we dislike about Obama would almost certainly be worse under a GOP administration. The lesser of two evils, in a democracy ruled over by a political duopoly, does indeed matter.

But these things do matter. What else can I say? The fact that Obama has deported so many undocumented workers, has essentially ramped up the war on drugs and laughed off its opponents, and started (and, admittedly finished) a war in Libya – these are deeply troubling. They reveal an illiberal strain in the Democratic party that is worrisome to civil libertarians like myself. I’m left feeling more hopeless than ever about the future of our free-ish society.

There is almost no way I could possibly vote GOP in this election. Ron Paul is a good man, I think, and an honorable one. He would attempt, at least, to do good, liberal things like end the wars and the war on drugs. But his history with the newsletters and his more radical domestic policies also matter to me. He doesn’t represent my vision for America either.

I’m left wondering how to change this country for the better. People say politics is all about the local. Focus on your congress person. Focus on the politics that are closer to home. Maybe this is true. But a president can make a big difference, as the Bush years have more than adequately illustrated. Maybe that’s Obama’s greatest strength. For all his flaws, for all his continuation of bad Bush-era policies, he’s managed to be a competent leader and administrator. Republicans long ago decided that the business of governing was beneath them. Bush was the culmination of years of anti-government attitudes. The appeal of Huntsman, I suspect, was that he seemed at least competent.

Well so is Obama. Surveying the GOP field this primary season, perhaps that is enough.

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What the booing of Ron Paul says about the Republican Party

The Republican Party isn't going to be home for non-interventionists any time soon.

I have a deep and abiding fondness for Ron Paul if only because he’s willing to stand before a crowd of conservatives and tell them that no, what the hawk-dominated conservative movement has been doing these many years is not actually a very conservative or Christian thing; Big Defense is still government and spending trillions of dollars on foreign wars of intervention and nation-building is still spending trillions of taxpayer dollars. I’m not a conservative and I don’t think I could vote for Paul, but to hear him make his case for non-interventionist foreign policy and an end to the war on drugs and so forth is to breathe a deep breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling room of conservative boilerplate.

So when Ron Paul was booed for his unorthodox foreign policy views it came as little surprise. The conservative movement and the Republican Party are united in their love of a strong and aggressive military, a fully neoconservative and interventionist foreign policy, and a continuation of the war on drugs, police militarization, and so forth. There are a few dissenters closer to the mainstream of the party than Paul – Tom Coburn is one and even Rand Paul is more mainstream than his father – but by and large the GOP is exactly the place one might suspect to find a peacenik like Paul booed.

It’s unfortunate, of course, but it is what it is.

Mike Dwyer engages in some wishful thinking over at The League:

If I were to describe what I think young Republicans will look like in 10 years I would suggest they will be moderate on social policy, mainline conservative on fiscal policy and libertarian on civil liberties and foreign policy. They will be pro-life but also believe people have a right to smoke weed in their own home. They’ll pretty much ignore gay marriage. They will believe in a strong world economy but be isolationist about wars and having our troops in foreign lands.

I’m willing to concede that on social issues the GOP will become more moderate but not go so far as to say that they will be fully moderate. On gay rights issues the Republicans have already shifted left. Evangelicals are not happy about this, however, and it’s quite likely that a tension will still exist between modernist and traditionalist camps in the GOP in ten years. On civil liberties the Republicans will be just as bad as they are now; on drug policy I expect no better; and on foreign policy I expect a new crop of young hawks to take up the reins. There is absolutely no chance that they become isolationist, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a more protectionist domestic policy becomes more popular on the right.

Either way, the party has very little room for men like Ron Paul. His popularity is fierce and his followers are passionate – but his politics are of a time long since past when the Republican Party was home to advocates of a more sober foreign policy than the one the neoconservatives devised.

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Huntsman The Hawkish Owl

Huntsman's foreign policy record is too thin to know what he'd do in office.

Daniel Larison takes issue with my description of Huntsman and Obama as “owls” – a term I use to describe a realist foreign policy preference that is neither hawkish in the neoconservative sense or necessarily dovish:

I won’t rehearse the litany of all the interventions Obama has supported over the years, but suffice it to say I don’t think he fits the “owl” definition. Huntsman has less of a public record on these issues, which makes it a little harder to judge, but based on what we do know he has flatly opposed last year’s war of choice in Libya, he wants to wind down the war in Afghanistan, but he favors starting a new war of choice in Iran. This last one is so much more important and so completely wrong that it’s hard not to give it more weight. On Iraq, he took no public position on the war between 2002 and today, but he endorsed the most zealous pro-war candidate in the last cycle and criticized the withdrawal of U.S. troops and called for a residual force to remain there apparently indefinitely. Put another way, on the most important foreign policy issue of the last decade Huntsman professes to be agnostic or at least unwilling to revisit the debate, but based on how he is misjudging Iran it is fair to guess that he would have favored invading Iraq as well.

This is all true enough. I think Obama actually started out as an owl and moved in the hawkish direction over the years, culminating his move toward interventionism in the invasion of Libya and the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki. This is also what gives me most pause about Huntsman whose positions on Afghanistan and Libya were pretty good but, as Daniel notes, has made very loud noises about Iran.

Beyond the troubling nature of his Iran comments, Huntsman reminds me a little bit of a rightwing version of Obama. Obama seemed much better on matters of war and peace when he was on the campaign trail. In office he’s never stopped disappointing. Isn’t it just as likely that Huntsman will do the same, sounding a cautious note on various foreign threats and then pounding the war drum as loud as ever when the mullahs taunt him?

In any case, Daniel is correct – Obama is no owl, though I think his hawkishness is much less ingrained than many of his Republican rivals. He is a mildly hawkish technocrat who believes we can do small but important things through intervention. His administration also talks tough on Iran, but I don’t worry nearly so much that he’d actually go through with all-out war as I worry about a Romney or a Gingrich administration. Huntsman has too little a record on these issues to say with certainty.

Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are the only candidates who are firmly and reliably anti-war. But Obama, I’d wager, is still a more sober commander in chief than someone like Romney who, so far as I can tell, wants to revamp neoconservatism in ways that the Obama administration, however bad it’s been on continuing Bush-era policies, hasn’t even dreamed of. When it comes to Iran, Obama makes me nervous. The majority of his GOP rivals have me quite literally terrified.

What do we do when confronted with the threat of an Iranian war and the lesser of two evils? I can’t honestly say.

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Republican Candidates Haven’t Learned The Foreign Policy Lessons Of The Past

Was Ike an interventionist?

“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” ~ Mitt Romney, the only man out of the two who has not killed Osama bin Laden.

Various readers and others have been quick to scold Andrew Sullivan over his defense of Eisenhower as a non-interventionist – and the greatest president of the 20th century. One reader notes that, “Eisenhower not only would have proceeded with Bay of Pigs, but was the final authority in the creation and structuring of the plot from the beginning. While the CIA and Dulles crafted the plans that led eventually to the idea of invasion, Eisenhower approved all of their machinations and saw that they were funded. Finally, the invasion idea itself was either concocted by Eisenhower or enthusiastically endorsed by him, and he and was prepared to persuade President-elect Kennedy of the invasion plan’s likely success.”

Others point out that Eisenhower involved the US in Lebanon and that the Eisenhower Doctrine pretty clearly states that intervention to halt or slow the spread of communism was legitimate. The doctrines states that intervention in another country is desirable if it is intended “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

Of course, in Andrew’s defense, those were very different times. Instead of the threat of an amorphous terrorism we fought a somewhat less amorphous communism that was embodied in two powerful enemies. Nuclear war was a new dark cloud looming above us.

Furthermore, Eisenhower didn’t have decades of failed interventions and botched, backfiring covert operations to guide him. Our current leaders should be aware of the shortcomings of interventionism in ways that Ike was not. We have the failure of Iran, Lebanon, Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. etc. etc. to guide our hand. Ike had Korea, but he also had the success of WWII.

Commenter Nob Akitimo keeps asking for a detailed foreign policy post outlining my own positions. I will get him one. But for now, my tendency is toward extreme caution – not because it is necessarily morally wrong to intervene, especially in the case of genocide – but because we are fallible and short-sighted. The consequences of our actions can be inscrutable. We are losuy at managing our own domestic affairs and so, almost by definition, worse at managing the affairs of others. We risk, constantly, to overreach both in our military response and in our domestic response (think PATRIOT Act, water-boarding, warrant-less wire-tapping, etc.)

I am a realist (I call myself an owl) bordering on pacifist (maybe the lovechild of an owl and a dove), not because I don’t think we can wage a just war or because there isn’t moral justification to intervene in a place like Libya, but because we have such poor information about the future. In Libya, for instance, we can attempt to manipulate events, but there are too many wild cards. Even beyond the success of our mission there, we can’t predict the fallout, the eventual course that nation will take.

In Egypt, the overthrow of Mubarak is also the rise of fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood and the likely end to peaceful relations with Israel. The dominoes keep falling every time we intervene and regardless of our intentions, noble or otherwise, where they fall is simply not up to us. Once upon a time I did believe in intervention as a way to promote peace and end the brutality of wicked men. Now I believe that in most places without cultural foundations to support peaceful democracy, wicked men will be replaced by other wicked men.

Once upon a time the world was full of possibilities. America was the super-power emerging from a World War that left our friends and enemies alike in heaps of rubble. We believed we could do anything, achieve anything, through a combination of commerce and force of arms. We were right about the former, wrong about the latter. And yet here we are so many years later watching men like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich talking tough about Iran, forgetting entirely the lessons of the power of peaceful, free trade to radically change the world for the better.

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Quote for the day

Ken, at Popehat, writes:

Whose side am I on?

You vulgar, upjumped, snake-oil-selling, midway-barker huckster. You venal, amoral, mendacious harpy. You vile, preening, scheming hack. Whose side am I on? I’m on the side of fuck you, bitch. I’m on the side of the Constitution, limited government, limited executive power to kill people, limited executive power to put our armed forces at risk, and the rule of motherfucking law. I can’t believe there was a time when I couldn’t grasp why people despised you. Whose side am I on? You Senator, can you name a nanosecond when you’ve ever been on anyone’s side but your own?

That’s whose side I’m on. What’s it to you?

That pretty much says it all if you ask me.