Realists Play Video Games
St. Augustine blesses the kill list. And liberalism is just a nicer, slicker, more PR-savvy way of carrying on the brutal work of empire.
Behold President Obama, on the second day of his presidency, flanked by retired generals and admirals, signing an executive order to ban torture and declaring that the prison at Guantanamo Bay would soon be closed — fulfilling, in other words, some serious campaign promises.
“What the new president did not say,” a recent New York Times story explains, in gleeful servitude to the ironies of military-industrialism, “was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes.” Those loopholes left, it turns out, plenty of room for the new administration to continue Bush-era, war-on-terror business as usual, preserving such controversial practices as extraordinary rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention.
“They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama,” Times reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane proceed to tell us, “a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric.”
And Obama’s base of support is dismissed in an instant as fervent fools who actually believed all that nonsense about . . . what was that word again? Oh yeah, hope. If you are stressed about human rights abuses, torture, indefinite detention, pre-emptive invasion, the slaughter of civilians, the occupation of sovereign nations, drone warfare, government-sanctioned assassination, the shredding of constitutional rights, depleted uranium, toxic military waste, the counterproductivity of war and such like, my friend, you are not a realist.
Realists recognize that certain human beings are expendable.
The buzz-generating article, published at the end of May, is “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” a 6,000-word opus taking us on a tour of the Obama war room. It’s a remarkable piece of work, based on interviews with three dozen of the president’s current and former advisers. The story’s primary revelation is that Obama and his security team meet every week to discuss the “baseball card” bios of suspected al-Qaida members in such places as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and “nominate” the ones to kill in drone attacks. The president insists on having the final, life-and-death say.
The story is a mostly uncritical celebration of the process and of Obama’s “pragmatism” — which is to say, his abdication of do-gooder principles whenever they become inconvenient and get in the way of America’s safety.
Indeed, Obama comes off as a heck of a commander-in-chief, decisive and tough yet adept at spouting liberal rhetoric and conversant with the just war theory of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Thus, unlike George Bush, he is able to certify his war as morally acceptable to intellectuals, no matter how cynically he may compromise the principle that “thou shalt not kill civilians.”
One of the most blatant bits of cynicism the story reveals, which has deservedly received much critical comment, concerns the way the Obama team was able to reduce, or at least contain, the number of civilian casualties its drone strikes created:
Obama simply “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
But hey, that’s realism. My concern about this is not only with the Obama administration’s cynical pursuit and expansion of Bush’s brutal, destabilizing war, but with the subtle banishment by the Times of all substantive criticism of it into the margins of fanaticism. Alternatives to the violent pursuit of “safety” and self-interest do not appear in the story; there’s no acknowledgement they even exist. The only counter-ideas given voice emanate from Dick Cheney and the rabid neocons, which serve mainly to reinforce the moderate reasonableness of Obama’s war.
Yet there’s nothing moderate or reasonable about it at all, or even, as far as I can tell, “pragmatic” or “realistic.” The message I take from the Times story is that terrorism is simply less frustrating to deal with if it’s reduced to a logical, utterly abstract, win-lose problem, rather than dealt with in terms of long-range principles or seen in a context that includes a re-examination of American policy and self-interest. What primarily matters is that those in power be able to reassure themselves continually that they’re “doing something” by taking out bad guys. (Realists play video games!)
The Times story looks no deeper than this, but at one point the writers describe Obama as following “the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands.” Why is the enemy metastasizing? Well, they later note, in what Tom Engelhardt calls the “single outside-the-Beltway sentence” in the entire article, that both Pakistan and Yemen “are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”
Obama the realist is pursuing a policy that isn’t working, even in its own terms, but the powers that be, including the media, don’t seem to notice. Meanwhile, the secret kill list protects us — from those who claim safety requires creating a just and humane world.
(Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.)