I’m happy that President Obama seems to be gaining in what was (and still could be) a tight race. I feel confident that he’ll continue to do a good job in many areas, and I think Mitt Romney is not qualified to lead. I started this year hoping that under all the “running to the right” baloney, maybe Romney was still the competent, moderate business manager who solved the health care problem in Massachusetts. Now I’m not sure he ever was that guy, and if he was, it doesn’t seem like he’s interested in being that guy anymore.
That said, since Obama is ahead, I feel justified hammering him a little. To wit: I still think the administration is failing to send a coherent message about America’s moral compass when it comes to the “Muslim world.” Two stories from this week illustrate the point.
First, President Obama speaks to the world:
[T]he attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They’re also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded: the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully, that diplomacy can take the place of war, that in an interdependent world all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.
If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy or to put out statements of regret and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis, because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes that we hold in common….
There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.
In this modern world, with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.
This is, of course, a funny message from the guy who felt that Anwar Al-Awlaki’s speech was worth quite a bit of violence. And even if you thought Awlaki’s speech crossed the line from promoting violence (which is legal) to inciting it (which isn’t), and even if you thought that his inciting speech was not just illegal, but actually worthy of the death penalty (which, as far as I know, we only give for speech in one very particular situation), and even if you thought that Awlaki’s virtual unreachability in Yemen meant that “due process,” as a practical matter, was out of the question… there’s simply no denying that the U.S. reaction to Awlaki involved the killing of innocents. It absolutely did. So when the President goes before the world and starts talking about speech can never justify the death of innocents… it looks bad.
[UPDATE: The above paragraph is incorrect, at least in the implication that Anwar Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in the same strike as Awlaki himself. That’s not true. He was killed in a separate strike some days later. That’s my mistake, and I’ll be dealing with it in the next post.]
It looks especially bad given the astounding frequency with which the U.S. kills and maims innocents in Pakistan. A recent paper published jointly by Stanford Law and NYU Law explores our drone war’s effects and concludes that it’s both a humanitarian disaster and a public policy mistake. The humanitarian part first:
The practice of targeting a strike site “multiple times in relatively quick succession”—a practice known as “double tap”—has received some attention but, up until now, the terrible impact of this practice on Pakistani communities has not really been explored beyond the fact that it kills rescuers, who are trying to provide emergency medical assistance and that is likely a war crime. The researchers talked to Pakistanis, who were well-aware of the practice of “follow-up strikes” and explained these strikes have “discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue.”
“We and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes to [the location of the strike],” a father of four, who lost a leg in a drone strike, confessed. “We don’t know who [the victims] are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe.”
Those venturing out to “recover bodies,” according to journalist Noor Behram, know they are likely to be “killed or maimed. [W]hat America has tried to do is attack the rescue teams . . . . So now, what the tribals do, they don’t want many people going to the strike areas. Only three or four willing people who know that if they go, they are going to die, only they go in….”
Funerals or services help reduce “psychological distress” in a community, but life under drones makes Pakistanis afraid of engaging in religious tradition.
Ibrahim Qasim of Manzar Khel said, “[T]here used to be funeral processions, lots of people used to participate. . . . But now, [the US has] even targeted funerals, they have targeted mosques, they have targeted people sitting together, so people are scared of everything.” Dawood Ishaq, “who lost both his legs in a strike,” said “people are reluctant to go to the funerals of people who have been killed in drone strikes because they are afraid of being targeted.”
No doubt each and every strike is carefully justified. And if these strikes were really effective in keeping America safe, perhaps there would be an argument, however disturbing, that they should be continued. But the report concludes that the strikes are not particularly effective in meeting our military goals; that they “foment anti-American sentiment”; that they “aid recruitment” by what it euphemistically calls “non-state actors”; that such strikes undermine our credibility as a moral force in the region; and most significantly, that they provide dangerous precedent in the law of war. This last part really is the most disturbing. Drones are cheap, and it’s a matter of years before they become the toy of choice for petty dictators, as well as for regional powers who will learn to enjoy cross-border harassment at minimal cost.
The whole thing is both evil and bad policy. Let’s be done with it.
I don’t go as far as Conor Friedersdorf, who says that although he was excited to vote for Obama in 2008, today he would feel ashamed to associate himself with Obama’s first term by voting for him again. As I said above, I think President Obama is head and shoulders above the Republican candidate, who would, I feel certain, do all of the above and more and would enact terrible policy on the homefront. Generally, I like Obama, and I don’t think he’s callous, any more than LBJ was callous. Of course, LBJ still got us mired in Vietnam, and if you think that was worth the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, well, I don’t disagree. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrible decision.
So, for the foregoing reasons, I, too, am considering taking my vote to a third party this year. I don’t vote in Ohio or Florida; no one’s going to miss me if I defect. And I know my little protest vote is essentially useless. But it’s mine. And maybe I should use it to say something, even if my voice is very, very small.