Tuesday, July 10, 2012

'The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama': A discussion

The following is a chat transcript with my friend Lex Friedman about Tom Junod's Esquire piece examining how President Obama uses drone warfare—and how his actions might be infringing on American civil liberties.

Lex: So I read that long long piece you linked yesterday.
  About the Lethal Presidency.
  I am above making a joke about how the worse crime by far is the overwrought writing style the author brought to the piece.
 me: Heh. Fair enough.
9:24 AM Lex: I understand the author's argument.
  But I do not agree.
 me: How so?
9:25 AM Lex: I see targeted killings as he (negatively-ish) paints the administration as seeing them: an evolved form of war. Instead of killing soldiers with little stake in the battle, or putting our own soldiers with limited stakes at direct daily risk, you go for the people who are actively involved in plotting against you.
9:26 AM If we grant the president the right to send troops to fight wars—and we do!—then we're trusting him with lots of lives on both sides.
  If this approach means that fewer people die overall, which I think it does, I like it.
9:27 AM me: There are two issues, one narrower but perhaps more important.
 Lex: That said, I probably come down on the wrong answer on this question: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem
9:28 AM me: Three, three issues. American citizenship, Obama's honesty, and blowback.
9:29 AM Lex: I gotta tell you, the American citizenship issue doesn't faze me at all. Plenty of Americans criticize America all day. If anyone, American or not, is inciting or directing violence against Americans, I don't treat those instigators any differently from anyone else inciting same.
9:31 AM me: The first is the biggest: The president has reserved to himself the right to assassinate an American citizen who is not currently engaged in the field of battle. He's furthermore done that without an explanation of the legal standards involved beyond a "trust me" vibe that sets a bad precedent. I don't trust individuals; I trust processes. We don't know what the processs is. And I don't trust Obama's successors, particularly, to have the power that his precedent grants them--at least not without some ability to restrain or review it. There's a saying in the legal profession: "Hard cases make bad law." Well, al-Awlaki's assassination might be making bad law for the rest of us.
9:33 AM 
2. Obama's honesty: The administration has reported that civilians aren't really killed in these attacks. Part of the way it arrives at that conclusion is by deciding that any "military-aged male" in the vicinity of a targeted bad guy is ipso facto a bad guy. Maybe, but maybe not. That underlying assumption reduces my trust in the president.
 Lex: Even that argument doesn't faze me. Whether Obama makes it a policy/precedent or not, the next better or worse guy could have done the same. There was no precedent for preemptive strikes until W made it. My point being, president precedent doesn't mean much to me, because any new president can set it.
9:35 AM me: 3. Blowback: The use of drones is narrower and more targeted than sending armies to conquer foreign lands. But if your family is on the receiving end of a bomb, it's not going to feel narrower. It only takes a few pissed-off individuals to make an attack of some kind, and I fear that the parameters of the drone war have grown so expansive that the benefits of "narrowly" targeting individuals have been somewhat diminished. That's my weakest argument, because there ARE bad guys out there, but it remains a concern.
9:36 AM Regarding precedent: You're right, to an extent, but also not: Precedent does matter: Even the George W. Bush felt compelled to couch his actions by citing instances from World War II and the Civil War.
9:37 AM And here's the thing: I wouldn't have trusted George W. Bush with these powers. I didn't. So I'm hard-pressed for a logical reason (other than my faith in the good-guyness of Obama) to trust this president with them either. In fairness, I don't think I can.
9:38 AM Lex: I didn't trust W sending the forces of which he was commander in chief into battle.
9:39 AM I'm opposed to all state-sponsored killing, really. I oppose the death penalty, I oppose war, I don't like any of it. The idea that we can kill people, as a nation, frightens and disgusts me all the time. But I recognize that in the current world order, it's not going away any time soon / ever.
  And if the options are the Old Way and the New Way, I prefer the New Way.
  Even if the New Way merely puts a dent in the Old Way.
9:42 AM me: Hey: I'm a lapsed Mennonite. My instincts are still toward pacifism, but I also recognize that's not the way the world works. Maybe what Obama is doing is the best we can realistically hope for. And for that matter, I'll even concede that the Bush Administration—while it gleefully grabbed for a chance to strengthen presidential prerogatives—also had a deep fear of inadvertently allowing another 9/11. The incentives are aligned toward security, not civil liberties. But I don't want to surrender the civil liberties without a fight.
9:43 AM Lex: I naively support civil liberties for good people, and not for people who want to kill good people.
  I say "naively" because someone has to decide which are the good people.
  I think it's a guarantee no president will ever order a drone strike against a friend of mine.
 me: Right. We do civil liberties for everybody, in part, so that good people can feel free to exercise their goodness.
9:44 AM And in most cases, there's a defined process for denying the bad guys of their liberties. When it's skipped or fudged, that's when I get nervous.

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