“The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.” Well, that’s certainly a judicious use of judicious by William Daley. The former White House chief of staff was addressing the inevitability of collateral damage inherent in President Barack Obama’s principal war strategy against al-Qaeda: killing suspected terrorists by firing missiles from unmanned drones that scour faraway skies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. This was about halfway through the New York Times’ rambling 6,300-word testimonial to Obama’s unparalleled splendor as a wartime commander-in-chief.
You see, for all the precision of modern weaponry, it turns out error is simply unavoidable: sometimes the wrong targets get hit and the wrong people get killed by our armed forces and the presidents who command them. Fog of war, and all that. For many years — specifically, from October 2001 through January 19, 2009 — the Times saw this inevitability as grist for scandal. But suddenly, the Gray Lady has evolved, just like its heroically “pragmatic” commander-in-chief. Collateral killings are just the way it goes — and if Obama camouflages what the Left used to insist were civilian casualties by a post facto declaration that everyone killed was a “combatant,” the Times has suddenly decided that, far from crying out for a war crimes investigation, this just proves his lawyerly brilliance.
After all, it is the end result of a “judicious process.” That’s judicious, not judicial. Of course, time was when candidate Obama, his campaign surrogates, and the Times would have scoffed at the notion that the executive branch was capable of judiciously prosecuting the battle, determining who was the enemy, and taking action to kill or capture and detain. Sure, from 1787 through 2001, presidents may have been trusted with plenary control over war-fighting. But that was then. Now, according to the Bush-deranged Left, the “rule of law” demanded a judicial process. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms — a willful violation of the laws of war that the Left converted into a presumption of innocence. Thus, progressives told us, to hold suspected terrorists, let alone kill them, based on nothing more than a unilateral executive branch determination, no matter how “judicious,” was a shredding of the Constitution and a profound violation of international law.
Now that the president’s name is Obama, though, “judicious” executive unilateralism is more than enough to justify killing — and not only in an emergency: the Times depicts Obama as the don, meeting weekly with his consiglieri to decide who lives and who dies.
Eleven years into post-9/11 combat operations and facing a tough reelection fight, it has conveniently dawned on the Obama Left that when the nation is threatened and takes up arms, the risk of error shifts from the government, which bears it in peacetime law-enforcement operations, to “the enemy.” For the Times — whose epic account of Obama at war begins with a portentous “This was the enemy” – enemy is the term now in vogue for what, heretofore, were known merely as “young Muslim men,” subjected either to indefinite detention without trial or to being slain under ambiguous circumstances in Bush’s “war on terror,” which was really a “war against Islam.” Now that those young Muslim men are being detained or killed by Obama, it is remarkable to discover what a mortal threat to the United States they really are. And it further turns out that, while our intelligence community does the best it can, warfare requires our combat forces to take action without the certainty of meticulously tested courtroom evidence — and that’s suddenly okay, too: When people are plotting to mass-murder Americans, the Times wants you to know that we can’t afford to wait until we have proof that will satisfy a jury; they need to be rubbed out, pronto.
What is most astonishing in the story co-authored by Jo Becker and Scott Shane is its rationalization of the president’s naivete and amateur-hour missteps. In the revisionist history, these are seen as emblematic of the Omniscient One’s duplicity — which the reporters, far from finding offensive, portray as the president’s most praiseworthy attribute. “Bush lied and people died”; Obama lies and … it is his unmatched attorney’s mind at work.
Thus does the Times celebrate what in the retelling is Obama’s knowing deception — not his ideologically driven recklessness — in ceremoniously pronouncing, on his second day in office, that Gitmo would be closed and that he would make good on other campaign commitments to turn the clock back, back to Clintonian courtroom counterterrorism and away from Bush-era reliance on the laws of war. Even as the Times and the rest of the Left deliriously swooned, we now discover that Obama was furtively inserting “a few subtle loopholes” in his first executive orders, “already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.” An outrage? No, the Times sees this as just “the deft insertion of some wiggle words” by “a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters [ACM: the Times, for one], was never carried away by his own rhetoric.” The Paper of Record, which spent years obsessing over 16 words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, now builds sleight-of-hand into the president’s job description.
And why not? Why shouldn’t the Times’ preferred commander-in-chief be afforded the same loose acquaintance with the truth that the paper allows itself? For how else could it publish paragraphs such as this:
The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”
In point of fact, we learn in the course of the article (as if we did not know already) that the drone is not all that precise: It often takes lives and destroys property beyond its narrow targets. Furthermore, because the Obama administration, in its demagoguery against Gitmo and Bush detention policies, has nullified the options of capturing and interrogating jihadists, “our ideals” now apparently include killing people we could have taken alive — and whose intelligence we could have exploited to save American lives. And if those people happen not to be the people we were trying to kill, Obama just counts them as terrorists anyway — as long as they fit the administration’s profile for Muslim terrorists.
But a more overarching point: When Obama excoriated Bush for offering a “false choice between our safety and our ideals,” he was referring to the Bush wartime preference for executive processes over judicial ones. The Timeswell knows this, because it was leading the Obama cheering section. In what now passes for “our ideals,” however, Obama is not just unilateral judge and jury; he is executioner, as well. Bush was convinced the war model was necessary to protect the nation, but he left the war-fighting to the professionals. Obama, by contrast” is the “liberal law professor” who “insist[s] on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.”
Not to worry about this seeming contradiction, though. The doctrinaire secularists at the Times want to assure you that The One even transcends what up until five minutes ago was the essential “wall of separation” between church and state. You see, our current commander-in-chief, that erudite protege of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a sharp departure from the Bible-thumping rube who last held the job. Obama is “a student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas,” who is determined “to apply the ‘just war’ theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.”
What Obama, or, for that matter, the Times, actually grasps about Christian just war theory is unclear. (If you actually want to know what it is, a few words from George Weigel are a better expenditure of your time than a few thousand words from folks who find virtue in not being “carried away by [their] own rhetoric.”) But we do learn that Obama-style “just war theory” bears a striking resemblance to Obama-style “pragmatism” — which somehow always manages to get to the result Obama finds politically expedient.
So we discover that Obama applies a strict moral imperative in his judicious application of just war drone-killing … except when he doesn’t. The target must be an imminent threat to the United States … except when he isn’t. There must be a “’near certainty’ of no innocents being killed” … except when there isn’t. The Times concedes, for example, that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud “did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing”: he was not a threat to the United States and, when located by the CIA, he was surrounded by innocents — staying with his wife at his in-laws’ home. But, hey, “Pakistani officials wanted him dead.” Obama rationalized that the drone program was necessary and the “drone program rested on [the Pakistanis’] tacit approval.” And, yes, killing Mehsud with a missile would necessarily entail killing those in his company, but them’s the breaks. The don gave the order.
And on it goes, at times sadly hilariously. The Times, for example, notes that “the president’s resolve” was “stiffened” by a “series of plots” that included “the killling of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., by an Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.” The Times does not note that, with this one passing reference tying Major Nidal Hasan’s jihadist rampage to Islamic supremacist ideology, the Gray Lady has surpassed the Pentagon in explaining what happened at Fort Hood. Applying the Obama-imposed conscious avoidance mandate, the armed forces did not refer to Islam or jihad in their 75-page report on the massacre, which the administration prefers to frame as a case of “workplace violence.”
In the main, though, the Times report is a study in the Left’s self-absorption. When modern progressives are out of power, warfare is unnecessary — a simplistic, “might makes right” resort to force when the Left’s brand of nuanced diplomacy would have done the trick. Reasonable suspicion is never enough: no one is to be assumed an enemy of the United States absent proof beyond a reasonable doubt that will stand up in court; and if a Republican president resists the “transparency” of judicial review, or resorts to measures like military detention or immigration-law deportation in order to protect its intelligence secrets from exposure, it is chipping away at the very foundations of constitutional governance, such that the Republican administration should be understood as more of a threat to America than the terrorists. Only when the Left is in power does war become necessary, as well as excruciatingly complex and difficult. Only then must we learn to be understanding when irresponsible political rhetoric crashes into hostile reality, and when moral lines in the sand are constantly crossed and haphazardly redrawn … only to be crossed yet again.
This would all be easier to swallow if the evolution came with an apology. But it is packaged in the same smarm as original antiwar, anti-Bush indictment: the more events reveal Obama’s predispositions to be half-baked, inept, and unrealistic, the more you are supposed to admire his savvy pragmatism in not merely abandoning them but pretending he never really held them in the first place — while the courtiers applaud.
Andrew C. McCarthy is the author of the New York Times bestsellersThe Grand Jihad and Willful Blindness. He is a contributing editor at National Review and co-chairs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also writes the Ordered Liberty blog at PJMedia.com.
Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy