Belmont Club

No Foe, No Friend

Dr. Bala Ambati, commenting on the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, says that while he has no sympathy for the al-Qaeda leader, he is bothered by the fact that the President can order the execution of a US citizen without any definite due process.  He believes that US citizenship counts for something, though he is not sure to what extent that “something” is. But if it counts for nothing, he argues, then what is the point of holding such citizenship to begin with?

Walter Russell Mead, writing in American Interest, believes the root of the problem is that the President wants to fight terrorism in two potentially contradictory ways: as a war and a non-war; as combat and as law enforcement. In his view the Al-Awlaki operation highlights the problem of trying to have it both ways at once.

President Obama cannot have it both ways. If he is our chief law enforcement officer leading the investigation of a global criminal network known as Al-Qaeda, then his actions are subject to one set of restrictions and one kind of review. Perhaps an Al-Awlaki can be killed resisting arrest, but the Greenwald-Paul questions about targeted killings make some sense if we are in the middle of a complex law enforcement operation against an organized crime entity comparable to the mafia or perhaps to a drug cartel.

But if the President is acting as Commander in Chief in a Congressionally authorized quasi-war (quasi because Al Qaeda is not a state), then his actions fall under another set of guidelines altogether.

The President has created some of the confusion in our debate. Frequently during the campaign, sometimes even in office, he has spoken as if he is the head of a criminal investigation team. When it comes to actual decisions, however, he acts like a military leader at war. Greenwald and Paul appear to believe that he is a policeman and needs to start acting more like one; I believe he is a war leader and needs to start talking more like one.

But what Walter Russell Mead believes and what Barack Obama believes are two different things. While Mead may want clarity, Barack Obama is following the time honored political tradition of creating two sets of rules which he can separately invoke as convenience demands. When it suits him to act the “law enforcement officer” in order to mollify his left wing base and European opinion, then he will don that hat. When it suits him to act like a Commander in Chief  to prevent the eventuation of a threat (which would lose votes), he will don the other other hat. Since no one who has two nice hats likes giving up either, Obama will try to keep both. He’s not entitled to, but the media will let him anyway.

The iron logic of talking points requires that politicians should never admit to what they need to do. You can never say that in order to the cut the deficit we need to cut spending. You can never say that in order to win a war, you must wage it.  Anyone who wants to be elected must resign himself to the necessity of saying to one and all, “you can have a free lunch”.

The same duality runs through this administration’s national defense policy. Let’s close Guantanamo, but let’s continue rendition. Our enemy is in Afghanistan, except that they are mostly based in Pakistan. We don’t need no stinking declaration of war for Libya, but Bush lied and people died. America is not at war in Yemen — well tell that to Anwar Al-Awlaki.

Well the point is that nobody needs to tell Al-Awlaki nothing any more. He’s dead. And in six days he’ll be forgotten. It will be on to ‘Dancing with the Stars’.  The basic cultural problem is the media has conditioned the public not to be able to handle the truth. Certain segments of the public want safety but don’t want to be told how it is obtained. They want to close Guantanamo to regain popularity with Europe, but if something needs to be done, well boys, do it but don’t let us catch you at it. America is at war with no one in particular; there is no one out there but believers in a “religion of peace”. Nothing out there but an Arab Spring. No problem that can’t be solved by recognizing Palestine. Don’t you know we can have a world without nuclear weapons in the same one that is about to experience a breakout in Iran, you know after the breakout in Pakistan?

We can you know. Just like we can borrow our way out of a deficit. Of course most of that is a crock. But trying telling the truth on the air and a whole line of pundits will queue up to call you a bigot and warmonger; except when the same set of people aren’t demanding that you do the opposite to be kept safe. Walter Russell Mead is right. You can’t have it both ways. But it is politically incorrect to say so. Therefore people like Judyth Hill of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation can say with a straight face that our response to September 11 should be to “make soup … Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children and fresh mown fields”. This passes for wisdom and if you disagree you’re a bigot.

And since logic like that can stand as public policy, we will inevitably reap its logical conclusion. We’ll get fantasy for fantasy. A fantasy strategy will eventually result in an imaginary victory for the protection of imaginary rights. Because what goes around comes around. You get what you pay for. So what does US citizenship count for? What in a war or under law enforcement? It is ironic that no one realized that when the clear bright line between enemy and dissident was muddled that everyone would wind up in the same pot. When there are no enemies — except sometimes, then there will be no rights — except sometimes.

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