(Article changed on December 4, 2012 at 10:07)
The Barack Obama Story (Updated)
How a Community Organizer and Constitutional Law Professor Became a Robot President
By Tom Engelhardt
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Obama,
Nothing you don't know, but let me just say it: the world's a weird place. In my younger years, I might have said "crazy," but that was back when I thought being crazy was a cool thing and only regretted I wasn't.
I mean, do you ever think about how you ended up where you are? And I'm not actually talking about the Oval Office, though that's undoubtedly a weird enough story in its own right.
After all, you were a community organizer and a constitutional law professor and now, if you stop to think about it, here's where you've ended up: you're using robots to assassinate people you personally pick as targets. You've overseen and escalated off-the-books robot air wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and are evidently considering expanding them to Mali and maybe even Libya. You've employed what will someday be defined as a weapon of mass destruction, launching history's first genuine cyberwar against a country that isn't threatening to attack us. You've agreed to the surveillance of more Americans every which way from Sunday than have ever been listened in on or (given emailing, texting, and tweeting) read. You came into office proclaiming a "sunshine" policy and yet your administration has classified more documents (92,064,862 in 2011) than any other in our history. Despite signing a Whistleblower Enhancement Protection Act, you've used the Espionage Act on more government whistleblowers and leakers than all previous administrations combined, and yet your officials continue to leak secret material they see as advantageous to the White House without fear of prosecution. Though you deep-sixed the Bush administration name for it -- "the Global War on Terror" (ridding the world of GWOT, one of the worst acronyms ever) -- you've accepted the idea that we are "at war" with terror and on a "global battlefield" which (see above) you're actually expanding. You're still keeping uncharged, untried prisoners of not-quite-war in an offshore military prison camp of injustice that, on the day you came into office, you promised to close within a year. You're overseeing planning that, according to recent reports, will continue the Afghan War in some form until at least 2017 or possibly well beyond. You preside over an administration that has encouraged the further militarization of the CIA (to which you appointed as director not a civilian but a four-star general you assumedly wanted to tuck safely away during campaign season). You've overseen the further militarization of the State Department; you've encouraged a major expansion of the special operations forces and its secret presidential army, the Joint Special Operations Command, cocooned inside the U.S. military/ You've overseen the further post-9/11 expansion of an already staggering national security budget and the further growth of our labyrinthine "Intelligence Community" -- and though who remembers anymore, you even won what must have been the first prospective Nobel Prize for Peace more or less before you did a damn thing, and then thanked the Nobel Committee with a full-throated defense of the right of the U.S. to do what it pleased, militarily, on the planet! And if that isn't a weird legacy-in-formation, what is?
I mean, you have my sympathies. The Bush administration did you no favors. You inherited hell for a foreign policy and when it came to matters like Guantanano, the Republicans in Congress hung you out to dry.
Still, who woulda thunk it? Don't these "accomplishments" of yours sometimes amaze you? Don't you ever wake up in the middle of the night wondering just who you are? Don't you, like me, open your eyes some mornings in a state of amazement about just how you ended up on this particular fast-morphing planet? Are you as stunned as I am by the fact that a tanker carrying liquid natural gas is now making a trip from Norway to Japan across the winter waters of the Arctic? Twenty days at sea lopped off an otherwise endless voyage via the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Did you ever think you'd live to see the opening of the Northeast Passage in winter? Don't you find it ironic that fossil fuels, which helped burn that oceanic hole in the Arctic ice, were the first commercial products shipped through those open waters? Don't you find it just a tad odd that you can kill someone in distant Yemen without the slightest obstacle and yet you've been able to do next to nothing when it comes to global warming? I mean, isn't that world-championship weird, believe-it-or-not bizarre, and increasingly our everyday reality?
Aren't you amazed that your Pentagon has recently issued a directive meant to ensure that armed robots will never kill human beings on their own? Not so long ago, that was the stuff of sci-fi; now, it's the subject of a bureaucratic document. Tell that to Skynet someday, right?
Who could make this stuff up? Maybe William Gibson -- maybe he already did -- but not me and my guess is not you either.
Putting Yourself in a Box
I know that we humans are terrible at predicting the future. Still, if I had told you back in, say, 2003 that, in the wake of a lawless administration, we would vote a constitutional lawyer into the White House as a "peace candidate" and he'd do exactly what you've done so far (see, again, above), you wouldn't have believed it, would you? And if I had told you it would be you, I'll put my money on your laughing me out of any room (not that I've ever been in a room with you).
Just the other day, something leaked by two "administration officials" onto the front-page of the New York Times got me started on this letter. In a piece headlined "Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy," reporter Scott Shane wrote that, fearing you might lose to Mitt Romney, you were rushing to develop "a formal rule book," including "explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures." You won the election, of course, but Shane claims you're "still pushing" -- though at a far more leisurely pace -- "to make the rules formal and resolve... exactly when lethal action is justified."
To use your term, you are putting "a legal architecture" in place for a process of White House-directed robotic assassination -- you call them "targeted killings" -- that will assumedly be long-lasting. These are acts that in the years before 9/11, as Shane points out, Washington used to condemn when Israel committed them and that most countries consider illegal to this day.