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Could it be that the commander-in-chief has a trace of PTSD? He seems to be appealing for our understanding about how conflicted he is about ordering people killed, entreating us to imagine his anguish, to appreciate how hard it is for him -- a constitutional lawyer, no less -- to do these terrible things anyway.
And then the kicker: "Remember," he adds, "that the terrorists we are after target civilians." (Whatever happened to the "But we are better than that.")
On Guantanamo, Obama expressed regret over how the prison "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law" (and in the very next sentence trivializes this, lamenting only that "our allies won't cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO)."
Again regarding Guantanamo, he asks, "Is that who we are? ... Is that the America we want to leave to our children?" And he notes disapprovingly that "we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike."
And so I keep asking myself, who is this "we?" Does the President style himself as some sort of extra-terrestrial creature looking from afar on the abomination of Guantanamo? Has he forfeited his role as the leader of "we?" What kind of leadership is this, anyway?
History of Leadership
In a speech on March 21, second-term Obama gave us a big clue regarding his concept of leadership -- one that is marked primarily by political risk-avoidance and a penchant for "leading from behind": "Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see."
John Kennedy was willing to take huge risks in reaching out to the USSR and ending the war in Vietnam. That willingness to take risks may have gotten him assassinated, as James Douglass argues in his masterful JFK and the Unspeakable.
Martin Luther King, Jr., also took great risks and met the same end. There is more than just surmise that this weighs heavily on Barack Obama's mind. Last year, pressed by progressive donors at a dinner party to act more like the progressive they thought he was, Obama responded sharply, "Don't you remember what happened to Dr. King?"
It is not as though Obama had no tutors. He entered Harvard Law School 113 years after one of its most distinguished alumni, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, began to study there. I find myself wondering if Brandeis has been redacted out of the lectures at Harvard Law.
Slick lawyers have done an effective job over the past dozen years trying, in effect, to render one of Brandeis's most penetrating remarks "quaint" and "obsolete." Following is a paragraph, acutely relevant to today's circumstances; Brandeis wrote it to warn us all about how the government sets a key example on respect for the law:
"The government is the potent omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that the end justifies the means -- to declare that the government may commit crimes -- would bring terrible retribution."
Protesting Too Much
Let me provide a couple of examples from Obama's speech that illustrate the value of Brandeis's warning:
One could easily infer that the President is protesting too much (four times in the speech) in claiming that his "preference" is to capture terrorists rather than kill them. Clearly, though, Obama has made targeted killing his tactic of choice. What do former insiders say? The lawyer who drew up the initial White House policy on lethal drone strikes has accused the Obama administration of overusing them because of its reluctance to capture prisoners. Holding prisoners is such a nuisance.
John Bellinger, who was a lawyer on George W. Bush's National Security Council and worked on the legal framework for both detention of suspected terrorists and targeted drone killings, said on May 1 at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington: "This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaida, they are going to kill them."
It should be noted that Bellinger is not opposed to targeted killings and argues that they are not only lawful but "can be good." He said the big issue was not the administration's claimed legality of targeted killings but rather international acceptance of Washington's so-called global war on terrorism: