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Obama’s Terrorism Speech: Seeing What You Want To See


The hallmark of a skilled politician is the ability to speak to a group of people holding widely disparate views, and have all of them walk away believing they heard what they wanted to hear. Other than Bill Clinton, I've personally never seen a politician even in the same league as Barack Obama when it comes to that ability. His most consequential speeches are shaped by their simultaneous affirmation of conflicting values and even antithetical beliefs, allowing listeners with irreconcilable positions to conclude that Obama agrees with them.

The highly touted speech Obama delivered last week on US terrorism policy was a master class in that technique. If one longed to hear that the end of the "war on terror" is imminent, there are several good passages that will be quite satisfactory. If one wanted to hear that the war will continue indefinitely, perhaps even in expanded form, one could easily have found that. And if one wanted to know that the president who has spent almost five years killing people in multiple countries around the world feels personal "anguish" and moral conflict as he does it, because these issues are so very complicated, this speech will be like a gourmet meal.

But whatever else is true, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that Obama's speeches have very little to do with Obama's actions, except to the extent that they often signal what he intends not to do. How many times does Obama have to deliver a speech embracing a set of values and polices, only to watch as he then proceeds to do the opposite, before one ceases to view his public proclamations as predictive of his future choices? Speeches, especially presidential ones, can be significant unto themselves in shaping public perceptions and setting the terms of the debate, so Obama's explicit discussion of the "ultimate" ending of the war on terror can be reasonably viewed as positive.

But it signals nothing about what he actually will do. I'm genuinely amazed that there are still smart people who treat these speeches as though they do. As Esquire's Tom Junod put it after the speech: "if the Lethal Presidency reminds us of anything, it's that we should be a long way from judging this president on his rhetoric or his portrayal of himself as a moral actor." The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf added that Obama "has a long record of broken promises and misleading rhetoric on civil liberties, and it would be naive to assume that he'll follow through on everything he said on Thursday."

What Obama has specialized in from the beginning of his presidency is putting pretty packaging on ugly and discredited policies. The cosmopolitan, intellectualized flavor of his advocacy makes coastal elites and blue state progressives instinctively confident in the Goodness of whatever he's selling, much as George W. Bush's swaggering, evangelical cowboy routine did for red state conservatives. The CIA presciently recognized this as a valuable asset back in 2008 when they correctly predicted that Obama's election would stem the tide of growing antiwar sentiment in western Europe by becoming the new, more attractive face of war, thereby converting hordes of his admirers from war opponents into war supporters. This dynamic has repeated itself over and over in other contexts, and has indeed been of great value to the guardians of the status quo in placating growing public discontent about their economic insecurity and increasingly unequal distribution of power and wealth. However bad things might be, we at least have a benevolent, kind-hearted and very thoughtful leader doing everything he can to fix it.

The clear purpose of Obama's speech was to comfort progressives who are growing progressively more uncomfortable with his extreme secrecy, wars on press freedom, seemingly endless militarism and the like. For the most part, their discomfort is far more about the image being created of the politician they believed was unique and even transcendent than it is any substantive opposition to his policies. No progressive wants to believe that they placed such great trust and adoration in a political figure who is now being depicted as some sort of warped progeny of Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney. That creates internal discomfort and even shame. This speech was designed to allow progressives once again to see Barack Obama as they have always wanted to see him, his policies notwithstanding: as a deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader who is doing his level best, despite often insurmountable obstacles, to bring about all those Good Things that progressives thought they would be getting when they empowered him.

The terrorism speech, when dissected, provided very little in the way of actual concrete substance. Its most heralded passage, as the ACLU quickly pointed out, did nothing more than call for the "ultimate" repeal of the AUMF; "the time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now," said the ACLU's executive director Anthony Romero, "not at some indeterminate future point." Moreover, he noted, "the president still claims broad authority to carry out targeted killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency."

In lieu of substance, the speech was heavy on feel-good rhetoric, mostly designed to signal that unlike the mean and simplistic George Bush – who presumably pursued these policies thoughtlessly and simplistically – Obama experiences inner turmoil and deep moral and intellectual conflict as he embraces them. "For me, and those in my chain of command, those [civilian] deaths will haunt us as long as we live," the president claimed. He added that drones and other new weapons technologies "raise[] profound questions — about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under US and international law; about accountability and morality."

This "he-struggles-so-very-much" conceit is one Obama officials have been pushing for awhile, as when they anonymously boasted to the New York Times about Obama's deep personal involvement in choosing the targets of his "kill list", something he insists upon because he is "a student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas" and wants to ensure compliance with those lofty principles. That same article quoted the supremely obsequious former Obama adviser Harold Koh as hailing torture advocate and serial deceiver John Brennan as "a person of genuine moral rectitude" who ensures that the "kill list" is accompanied by moral struggle: "It's as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war," Koh said.

Obama may do things you progressives find distasteful, but at least marvel at how thoughtful and torn up he is about it all. The New York Times' Ross Douthat had quite a good column this week about this preening pageantry. He aptly described the speech as "a dense thicket of self-justifying argument, but its central message was perfectly clear: Please don't worry, liberals. I'm not George W. Bush." Douthat explained:

"This willingness to grapple with moral complexity has always been one of the things that Obama's admirers love about him, and even liberals who feel disappointed with his national security record still seem grateful for the change from George W. Bush. If we have to have an imperial president, their attitude seems to be, better to have one who shows some 'anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society' (as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer put it on Friday), rather than falling back on 'the secrecy and winking smugness of the past'. . . . .

"I am not particularly nostalgic for the Bush era either. But Obama's Reinhold Niebuhr act comes with potential costs of its own. While the last president exuded a cowboyish certainty, this president is constantly examining his conscience in public — but if their policies are basically the same, the latter is no less of a performance. And there are ways in which it may be a more fundamentally dishonest one, because it perpetually promises harmonies that can't be achieved and policy shifts that won't actually be delivered.

"That's a cynical reading on Obama's speech, but it feels like the right one. Listened to or skimmed, the address seemed to promise real limits on presidential power, a real horizon for the war on terror. But when parsed carefully, it's not clear how much practical effect its promises will have. . . .

"There is no good reason to overpromise yet again. Where the United States can step back from a wartime footing, we absolutely should. But where we don't actually intend to, we should be forthright about it — rather than pretending that change is perpetually just around the corner, and behaving as though our choices are justified by how much anguish we express while making them."

When it comes to liberals eager to be fooled, Douthat could easily have been talking here about his own newspaper's editors. Within minutes after the completion of Obama's speech, literally, the New York Times editorial page posted a lengthy and gushing editorial headlined "The End of Perpetual War". In their eyes, the speech was "the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America." It analyzed the speech section-by-section and insisted that each called for a "shift [that] is essential to preserving the democratic system and rule of law for which the United States is fighting, and for repairing its badly damaged global image." It concluded: "There have been times when we wished we could hear the right words from Mr. Obama on issues like these, and times we heard the words but wondered about his commitment. This was not either of those moments."

How was the NYT able to post such a detailed and lengthy editorial about Obama's speech almost immediately upon its conclusion? Clearly, they were given a special preview of the speech by some administration official, who fed them exactly the message the White House wanted them to receive. And they ingested it fully. As one civil liberties lawyer put it to me, the NYT editors got snookered not despite the special access they received, but because of it. Most of all, they got snookered because they wanted to, because – like so many progressives – they are eager to see Obama in the light in which they originally saw him. Nobody likes to believe they were fooled or tricked or so enthusiastically supported a politician who does things they find horrible.

That's why a mere speech, filled with all sorts of mixed messages, leads the NYT editors to all but declare that Obama has heroically ended the war on terror – even though just one week before, one of his top military officials told the US senate that the war would last at least another decade or two. After NYT Editorial board editor David Firestone posted the NYT's editorial on Twitter and heralded the speech as "a momentous turning point, making clear an unending state of war is unsustainable," I asked him: "Will it be 'momentous' if it's not followed up with decisive and prompt action?" His reply: "Yes, I hope it doesn't turn out like universal pre-K or an infrastructure bank. But at least he set the bar at the right height."

In contrast to the NYT's instant swooning, serious journalists and commentators – who weren't given special pre-speech access to a marketing pitch by the White House – began analyzing the speech's content and reached a much different conclusion. McClatchy's Leslie Clark and Jonathan Landay astutely noted that Obama's formulation for when drone strikes should be used was broader than past government statements, which meant he "appeared to be laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeted killings".

The Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes similarly observed that Obama's speech seemed written to align the president "as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration's operational flexibility in actual fact." In other words, said Wittes (summarizing the vintage Obama rhetorical device), "the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so." Slate's national security writer Fred Kaplan observed this morning that "the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes." In an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Jeremy Scahill argued this about the Obama speech:

[I]t really is sort of just a rebranding of the Bush era policies with some legalese that is very articulately delivered from our constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. But effectively, Obama has declared the world a battlefield and reserves the right to drone bomb countries in pursuit of people against whom we have no direct evidence or who we're not seeking any indictment against."

The national security reporter Michael Hastings said much the same thing on MSNBC over the weekend ("That speech to me was essentially agreeing with President Bush and Vice President Cheney that we're in this neo-conservative paradigm, that we're at war with a jihadist threat that actually is not a nuisance but the most important threat we're facing today"), while Carnegie Mellon Professor Kiron Skinner on the same show said that "there was a lot of George W. Bush in that speech", as Obama spoke as though we are in a "long-term ideological struggle in a way that he's not talked about radical Islam before . .. where he's going will take him away from his liberal base."

Ultimately, one can persuasively highlight passages in Obama's speech that support any or all of these perspectives. That's what makes it such a classic Obama speech. And that's the point: his speech had something for everyone, which is another way of saying that it offered nothing definitive or even reliable about future actions. No matter how good it made some eager-to-believe progressives feel, it's impossible rationally to assess Obama's future posture regarding the war on terror, secrecy and civil liberties except by his actions. Until one sees actual changes in behavior and substance on those issues, cheering for those changes as though they already occurred or are guaranteed is the height of self-delusion.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>UPDATE [Thurs.]

Regarding my suggestion that length and detailed discussion of the speech in the New York Times editorial likely meant that the editors had been given an advanced preview by the White House: the paper's editorial page editor, Andy Rosenthal, did subsequently acknowledge that at least part of the praise for Obama's speech was unwarranted. Furthermore, Charlie Savage did preview the speech in the NYT the day before it was delivered. But the NYT editorial page editors insist to me that they did not themselves receive any advanced review, but rather wrote the editorial based on the speech was it was delivered. I take them at their word that this is true. 

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