Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Obama Is Doing Something Wrong in Fighting Terrorists

This first week of the year is devoted to posts on the big political picture.

On his first day in office, President Obama promised to close the Guantanamo prison within a year. He did not.

Last year he ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar Awlaki, by a drone attack in Yemen.

Last week he signed the defense bill which allows the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists.

Each of these acts is wrong in itself and dangerous as a precedent.

I normally support President Obama, so I have tried hard to understand why he did these things, and what principle or theory might lie behind them. I have not come up with a good account. National security, especially when dealing with terrorists, necessarily includes facts that can't be revealed to the public. Perhaps there are good reasons for these acts that are now hidden.

Here are my best guesses.

Some of the Guantanamo prisoners were so badly tortured under the previous administration that they cannot effectively be put on trial or released. Since their testimony was acquired by torture, it is worthless. The Obama administration ended the torture, but cannot undue what was done before.

A very small number of American citizens, such as Awlaki, have indeed become enemy combatants. Awlaki himself openly proclaimed this. Since he was in hiding in enemy territory, it was not practical to capture and try him as a citizen has a right to receive. The drone attack was the only practical way to fight that enemy, as we have with many other non-citizen enemy individuals.

When signing the National Defense Authorization Act, the president issued a statement that he objected to the provisions of the act that allowed for indefinite military detention and would not allow them on his watch. His opponents put this poison pill in the law precisely to embarrass the president. Since he had to sign the law in order to pay the troops, he accepted this compromise, while still rejecting this provision of the law.

I think these guesses on my part are the best case for understanding how President Obama could be party to these bad acts. Still, they only mitigate the evil; they do not justify it, nor end it.

I understand that we are fighting terrorists - enemy individuals and loose organizations that really do threaten us. The normal tools that states can use in fighting the armies of other states are not available. We have had to develop new tools to fight these enemies effectively.

I believe the Obama administration has made some effort to make the war against terrorists more legal than it was, and to make it still more legal and ethical as we go forward.

But I believe that President Obama has not done enough to fight these enemy individuals and organizations in a way that is in accord with American constitutional principles. This is my biggest disappointment with the Obama administration.


Brendan said...

Mine as well.

Mac said...

I dissent. I like this blog and when I disagree with a piece, I am usually able to chalk it up to reasonable men having differing opinions. This piece is different.

My dissent is too long to post here and I have written a response over at thew Scuttlebutt.

Can't wait for your take on the President's decision to ignore the Constitution and precedent in his appointments of Cordray, et al.

In the meantime, I will continue to read, enjoy, and be intellectually stimulated by Gruntled Center.

Best regards,

Mac McCarty
Downingtown, PA

gruntled said...

Mac: I have read your full post.

We are the good guys because we follow the rule of law. If we suspend the rule of law, and hold and torture people without trial, then we are become terrorists ourselves, on the same moral level as our enemies.

The experience of the United States is that we can win our fights, even with ruthless enemies, by upholding the rule of law. And more importantly, we draw the support and admiration of the peace-loving billions in our fight against terrorists when and because we are the strongest defense of the rule of law.

Mac said...


We are, indeed, the god guys. But I disagree with the premise that any of the things you cited in your post are violative of the rule of law, torture, or illegal, per se.

We agree in principle. It is in the application of those principles that we disagree.

And with respect to your assertion that "The experience of the United States is that we can win our fights, even with ruthless enemies, by upholding the rule of law," I'm not sure Gen Yamashita would agree.

Mac said...

To clarify, Gen Yamashita was the Japanese commander of the 14th Army, headquartered in China, but responsible for capturing the Philippines at the outset of WWII. He surrendered in early September 1945, was tried by military commission convened by General Mac Arthur, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on (coincidentally,I am sure)7 December 1945, the fourth anniversary of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Before his death, he applied for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied by the Supreme Court. The gist of the charges against him was that he did not properly train and supervise his troops in the responsibilities Japan had under the Geneva Conventions of 1929 with respect to the treatment of POWs. That Japan had not ratified the Geneva Conventions was ignored. Some think his worst offense, and the one that got him hanged, was defeating Mac Arthur.

Anonymous said...

In other words he is not liberal enough for you, the card carrying centrist.

gruntled said...

I thought being for law and order made one a conservative?

Anonymous said...

It depends on the law.We Conservatives are guilty too.

Katie A said...

As for Awlaki's case, my guess is that Obama acted on a liberal interpretation of our laws about expatriating citizens:

gruntled said...

Katie: Given how vague the declaration of war on "terror" was, do you think fighting for Al Qaeda qualifies under rule 3 ("entering or serving in the armed forces of a foreign state engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or serving as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer in the armed forces of a foreign state (Sec. 349 (a) (3) INA)")?

Katie A. said...

I think that the vagueness of this "declaration of war" is not the issue. The law says "engaged in hostilities" not "engaged in war." I would say that Al Qaeda is most definitely engaged in hostilities with the U.S.

The problem is that terrorists fall into a bit of a legal loophole with the current wording. I bet that the wording will be revisited if those groups without country or official army continue to be our main enemy.

gruntled said...

Yeah, but Al Qaeda is not a foreign state.