President Obama, it has been said, is a master of having it both ways. Nowhere is this truer than in foreign policy. He ended the torture regime at Guantanamo, in line with rulings handed down by the Supreme Court. At the same time he assured impunity to the lawyers who justified torture and the agents who executed it. He publicized his intention of closing the prison itself as a matter of principle; but when resistance sprang up, he scuttled the plan. To facilitate the extension of the war in Afghanistan, he allowed the issue of abuse of prisoners at Bagram to sink out of sight; and rather than enforce rigorous sanctions against mistreatment, he offered weak guidelines for American assistance in the handling of prisoner complaints. The administration sent the message that there was a cruelty practiced against "enemy combatants" which it formally discountenanced but would not go all lengths to prevent.
Obama initially condemned the enhanced interrogation of terrorist suspects because, under the American constitution, suspects have legal rights and all torture is illegal. Meanwhile, he maintained his credit as a war president, not distracted by constitutional niceties, by ordering terrorist suspects to be killed rather than tortured. (We are talking about persons named as suspects on evidence viewed in secret, a different thing from murderers found guilty by a legal process.) The killing is done by drones; and the drones, for now, seem very far away, though we know they are coming closer.
What are the refinements that especially recommend this new method of killing? The president's counter-terrorism czar John Brennan a year ago estimated the civilian casualties from drone attacks at zero. Just three days ago Brennan revised the official version: "It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened" that a drone has killed an unintended victim. Impartial judges, by contrast, have estimated civilian casualties somewhere between 400 and 800 (including 160 children). These deaths are the cause of an anger that every day gains fresh recruits for the terrorist organizations.
But the drone killings and black-ops killings are done, at least in part, for a domestic audience. The aim is to establish President Obama as prudent, calm, and canny about the ways of modern war. Yet there is something ominous about these administrative killings, something beyond the dissociation between the killer and the killed. The method -- which a secret finding in mid-2010 declared legal for use even against an American citizen -- seems likely to spur feelings of impotence more desperate than those a strong army inspires in soldiers of a weak one. Drone killings, the experts tell us, are more economical than a shooting war, but may they not be more subtly murderous in their effects? And do they not feed the same fantasy that held us captive in the years 2003-2007: that the way to victory in the fight against terror is to subtract the terrorists one by one until all of them are dead?
George W. Bush strove to exhibit a strutting aggression as manliness. It won him re-election in 2004, but has lost him respect already among the near posterity of a decade after. Until last week, Obama's most conspicuous difference from Bush on foreign policy had seemed to be his determination to talk softly no matter how aggressive the actions he ordered. His recent ad celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden changes that picture. The president, in his bid for re-election, has stepped forward now as another hero of martial virtue; and he deploys as his central exhibit the sort of black-ops killing that alongside reliance on drones has marked the distinctness of his war presidency.
Obama's command call for the Navy Seals to launch the attack in Abbottabad is interpreted by the ad as an embodiment of the same resoluteness that George W. Bush claimed for ordering an army of a hundred thousand to invade and occupy Iraq. Bush launched a war of aggression. Obama violated the national sovereignty of another country. Both did it to "protect" America -- a word that Bush abused to cover such actions, and Obama has ratified the abuse. In this killing game, Bush may be the more literal-minded player; but we should not confuse the difference of manner with a difference of morale. The game itself is base. The effect of the ad will be to repel many Americans who deprecate a contest to decide who is the coolest killer. On the minds of those who admire such contests and such players, the effect will be something worse.
"Ends are literally endless," wrote John Dewey; and he meant that you must show the nature of the ends by your practice and selection of means. Is it true for Obama that every means is a means to another means? Saying is not doing. If you re-christen the Global War on Terror as "the war we're in," but broaden the field of action and run executive-command black ops at an ever lengthening tether from the Constitution, you do not act to improve the prospects for peace or the fortunes of liberty.
It would appear that the case is complicated for Barack Obama by the particular way he looks at the world and himself. He is tempted to suppose that the nature of an action is changed by the fact that he is the one who performs it. He seems to have believed, for example, that he was ministering to human flourishing in some way by allowing the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize to be bestowed on him in 2009. The prize was announced and accepted before Obama had done anything to advance the cause of peace. (In 1973, as Tom Engelhardt has recalled in this connection, the North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho was awarded -- jointly with Henry Kissinger -- the Nobel Peace Prize for the Paris negotiations, and Le Duc Tho refused it on the ground that he had not yet been able to deserve the honor.) When Obama addressed the international gathering at Oslo, however, he spoke not with humility but with magnificent condescension. The new American president rode a high horse into that ceremony, as presider over an American beneficence that had blessed the world by military protection ever since the Second World War. He alluded to the great exemplars of non-violence, Gandhi and King, not with deference but with a quiet superiority. Unlike those theoretical idealists, said Obama, "I face the world as it is."
Of course, that is the usual profession of realists. But coming from the most powerful man in the world as it is, it was a deeply puzzling declaration. Does Obama merely face the world, and reflect its contents as they are, or does he play a distinct role in determining the shape of the world? His anti-Romney ad on the killing of bin Laden wonders if Mitt Romney would have had the self-command to order the killing at all. Is this a demonstration of Obama's capacity for facing the world? His apologists deny that there is anything extraordinary in it: he talks like this, or his campaign does, in order to prove that he is the conventional politician whom the average American wants and the politician whom the mainstream media expect in foreign policy. The usual expectations require the ad to say what it says: that Barack Obama is a gunslinger with excellent luck and dead aim.
The best and worst that one could say about George W. Bush was that he was all of a piece. Obama, on the other hand, impels us continually to ask who or what he imagines that he is. In his campaign to win the election as a war president, he flatters the vice of chauvinism and panders to a vulgar and brutal idea of the qualities that define a leader. No alchemy of eloquence can atone for the confession of moral surrender involved in such a boast.
Pragmatism in politics is a word that covers a multitude of evasions. At its most extreme, it may suggest the authorization or support of a wrong, by whose enactment alone an important right is banked on to emerge. Yet the Obama taunt against Romney's presumed unmanliness is not pragmatic even in that questionable sense. It is a case of a political act that is purely wrong. No conceivable right, however distant, can be counted among its consequences. If Romney wins the election, the challenge will stick in his mind: an incitement to prove himself by one-upmanship, against the killer prowess of Bush and Obama. And if Obama wins? By this appeal to the Republican household gods of war and warcraft he will have made it harder for himself to steer away from war -- supposing that to be his intention. The words and images of an ad like the one described above do not face the world as it is. They change the world as it is. They change it for the worse. They are a means to another means.