Friday, May 24, 2013

Obama Anguishes over his own War on Terror

Obama's War on Terror speech was one of his worst. When you don't really know what you want to say, or are ambivalent about what you should do, it is hard to speak coherently. The incoherence of the speech reflected Obama's conflicting impulses. Scott Wilson:
The speech was a mix of defensiveness and contrition over the choices he has made — all of which, he argued, have been preferable to the alternatives. . . .

After four years of alarming intelligence reports and attacks that were prevented and those that were not, Obama sounded like a former constitutional law lecturer who sees the nation and its security challenges in more shades of gray than he once did.
Obama is in a box largely of his own making. I think he is leery of the powers claimed by the Bush administration and maintained by his own, but on the other hand he is very worried about being, or being seen as, "weak on terror." I suspect he worries that a major failure against terrorists would bring the Republicans back to power and undo all of his other accomplishments. He also wants our foreign and military policies to be based on consensus, and he is not willing to oppose the defense and intelligence establishments. The bottom line is that while he said Congress might want to look at limiting the President's powers at some time in the future, he does not want anyone to limit his own.

Politicians are people whose profession is politics, so of course they usually see things in political terms. The political reality here is that most Americans are still much more scared of terrorists than of government overreach, and they don't care how many foreigners we kill in pursuit of our own safety. So only a very bold politician would roll back the security state while there is still any chance of a major terrorist attack. Obama is not a bold politician. He is both by nature and by political strategy a seeker of consensus. He also has a powerful desire to keep very tight control on these policies, as we see in his extravagant claims for secrecy and manic leak hunts. Andrew Sullivan was impressed by Obama's
Niebuhrian grasp of the inherent tragedy of wielding power in an age of terror
but I find that I don't much care. What he feels is immaterial; only what he does matters. However much Obama frets on the constitutionality or morality of his actions, he is going to keep fighting his secret and illegal war.

On the other hand I did not sense any desire to fight wars with Iran or Syria, and there were some lines that might be interpreted as arguments against such wars. So I am back to my usual position on Obama's foreign policy: I don't really like it, but it could be a lot worse.

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