Progressive discontent with the president mainly centers around the president’s use or non-use of presidential power. If the president would only ignore Congress and close Guantanamo unilaterally, the argument goes, then he could keep his promise. Besides (the argument inevitably continues), that’s what Bush would have done. So Obama is just like Bush, and the only way he can be not just like Bush is to abuse power just like Bush. See how that works?
In a related issue, Punk Patriot — a genuine netroots phenom and a swell guy — feels restless about the president because he’s a bit of a pacifist, whereas the president has made very effective use of his executive warmaking authority. The Punk Patriot speaks for a youth cohort that is very engaged on the issue, and as I actually like his larger point here, I’m going to let him talk and put my thoughts below the fold:
A few points. First, the president doesn’t want to keep Camp X-Ray, the Guantanamo detention facility, open. The sad story of why it’s still open belongs to Congress, where powerful Senators on the Armed Services Committee have been attacking executive power over indefinite detainees. This started early in Obama’s administration, it has not let up, and it is why I find public focus on the president over NDAA completely misplaced: those notorious provisions on indefinite detention are just the latest manifestation of this congressional power-grab. Remember, the Constitution makes the president commander-in-chief — he’s supposed to have the powers of, and over, indefinite detention.
I share Punk Patriot’s desire to put detainees on trial in civilian courts, close Camp X-Ray, and put the worst of the worst in supermax prisons if necessary — but we don’t have a vote in Congress. In fact, our point of view barely gets a voice there at all.
Second, most of the American public wanted progress in the war against al-Qaeda and approves of the progress Obama has made since his inauguration. It has always been normal presidential business to kill America’s enemies (see: Constitution, “common defense”). He promised a laserlike focus on al-Qaeda when he ran for president, and I don’t think anyone can seriously say he hasn’t fulfilled that promise. The Bushies, on the other hand, seemed in no special hurry to win the war on al-Qaeda. So don’t tell me they’re the same, because they’re just not.
Third, I do not agree with the common framing on drone strikes. If Obama sent Marines to shoot everyone and urinate on them instead of firing missiles from drones, would it actually make anyone feel better? I doubt it. Marines who fail at military discipline and violate the laws of war can get caught and punished. But it’s still war, and the punishment is for pissing, not killing.
Furthermore, the only “Overton Window” you can look for in the current presidential field is Ron Paul, who would issue letters of marque and reprisal to the company formerly known as Blackwater. Good luck getting any accountability for whatever horrors Erik Prince can come up with in Waziristan.
War is not fair. The art of war is the creation of unfairness. The enemy cannot be granted a sporting chance; he will likely kill you as thanks for the opportunity. He’s not playing games, and neither should you. That’s why people who wage war — by blowing up families in Kabul, or Marines on convoy in Afghanistan, or planes full of passengers — don’t deserve sanctuary or special protection across the artificial political boundary of a “lawless tribal zone.” Moreover, the drone strikes have worked: the Taliban are now talking, which is the first step to getting out of Afghanistan.
The president’s mission in Afghanistan is to get out of Afghanistan. His mission in Pakistan is to stay out of Pakistan. His mission in Libya has been to stay out of Libya. Right now, that strategy seems to be working.
Look at it this way: coal companies have been bombing Appalachia for a decade now, to staggering effect on communities and people in the region. At least as many West Virginians and Kentuckians have died of carcinogenic heavy metals released into streams as Pakistanis have died of drone strikes. There is no accountability for Don Blankenship, either, no matter how much he pissed on mine safety and the miners union. So you’ll excuse me if I just don’t place drone strikes at the top of my list of concerns.
The horror I share with Punk Patriot is that such crimes are not actually crimes at all, at least not in terms of individual accountability. It is perfectly legal for Don Blankenship to kill Americans with an unsafe workplace, and kill their communities with mountaintop removal mining. It was also perfectly legal to call toxic subprime mortgage debt a AAA good-as-cash investment. I am less concerned by putting people in the dock, however, than I am in making laws that stop these practices. And who writes the laws? Again, that would be Congress. Punk Patriot should talk to the folks at Appalachia Rising about how long they’ve pushed legislation to end mountaintop removal mining, and how much luck they’ve had (none).
Punk Patriot is concerned about the president’s progressivism, but what he’s really complaining about is the presidency. It’s a limited office, though until the election of Barack Obama the president’s wartime powers had very few limits. This is actually not the first time the United States has pursued a non-state actor into uncertain territory. If then-Lieutenant George S. Patton had access to a drone while chasing down Pancho Villa’s guerilla forces in Mexico, he would have used it. Indeed, the US Army used biplanes in 1916. That wasn’t fair, either, and it brought negative attention from pacifists to President Wilson’s policy. We have been here before.
The United States has been at war now for a decade. Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) after 9/11, and it requires the destruction of al-Qaeda. If, on the other hand, the president were to begin his tenure by purging the Pentagon, Langley, and the NSA of everyone who knew about torture, who would be left to tell him where Osama bin Laden is?
The Punk Patriot wants peace. So do I. And on the other side of AUMF is a place where the “war on terror” ends, which is why the president has applied force to get there. Hate it if you want. In the meantime, he just declared his intentions to shrink the nuclear stockpile even further, to reduce the active duty land force so America cannot invade more than one country at a time, and continue withdrawing from Afghanistan. He has transformed the Department of Defense with solar Marines, alternative fuels, and the reversal of DADT. These changes will have permanent positive effects on the progressive agenda.
The alternative is to wait for a more progressive president (as Punk Patriot would define one) to come along. Pardon the talking point, but we can’t wait. Progressives cannot sit out the chance to displace the Congressional war machine and install candidates who will back up plans to shrink the military. If we don’t get that done, then the 113th Congress will fight to maintain the size of the active force, keep Camp X-Ray open forever, and stymie reform — just like the 112th Congress is doing. And how progressive is that?