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.