Is Obama is a good man? And does it matter?

My post on why I supported Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning produced quite a strong reaction in which some people took issue with my harsh criticism of Barack Obama. I wrote a follow-up that addressed some of the concerns and I would strongly recommend that people particularly read the responses by Jeffrey Johnson that appeared in the comments to the latter post because he very thoughtfully took issue with my stand.

I want to pick out just one aspect of his comments, not because it is central to the case he makes (it is not), but because it is something I hear a lot from Obama supporters. He says in one comment that “I still view him as someone who is a good man who cares a great deal about protecting America and Americans, and that is the motive of his actions” and in another comment that “I agree Obama is rational and calculating, but I don’t view him as cold and evil.”

Of course people’s motivations matter when we judge their actions. But I believe that we should judge public figures by their public record only. Our assessment of their personal moral qualities, based as they are on their public appearances, are largely immaterial because not only do we have little idea what they are really like, especially in this age when the images of public figures are so carefully crafted and projected, there is little evidence that private morality correlates that strongly with public morality.

So why do so many people feel obliged to try and judge the actions of politicians and other celebrities in personal moral terms? The problem is that none of us want to think that the people we like and support based on their public image, and even voted for, are evil people, because that seems to make us accomplices in their actions.

I voted for Obama twice. I too would like to think I voted for a ‘good’ person because that would make me feel good. As far as I can tell, Obama seems to be a good father and husband and is nice to his dog. He may well be a person that I could like and be personally friends with. But I don’t really know and it does not really matter because I think that many of his policies are not only abominable, they are downright criminal. The fact that Obama has turned out to be so awful on civil liberties and human rights as well as an accomplished liar and hypocrite deeply bothers me, both for its implications for public policy and also because of my past support for him.

In another comment henry_pet said that “It isn’t necessary to attribute maliciousness to Obama – it’s enough to look at past actions, and remember that plenty of evil is done by people for the best of intentions.”

I think that henry_pet has it right. We tend to place far too much reliance on our ability to accurately gauge the internal qualities of public people, especially their moral fiber. I have long come to the conclusion that the kind of people who are willing, and even eager, to go through the kind of grueling process that is required to achieve high office are people who have a certain amoral nature. It is not that they are without any moral compass at all. Many of them may be personally very nice people, generous to friends and kind to animals. But they seem to be people who are willing to sacrifice their personal moral principles in the pursuit of their greater ambitions and when they are making political decisions.

For example, Ronald Reagan was notoriously genial in his dealings with people and was reputed to be personally very generous. On a personal level, the worst thing people said about him was that he was not very bright. And yet that did not stop him from implementing extremely cruel policies that caused hardship to so many people. There is no evidence that he lost any sleep over it either. In such people’s minds, there seems to be no dissonance. When people think they are acting for the ‘greater good’ or ‘the good of the country’ or administering ‘tough love’, they can persuade themselves to do the most cruel things while still thinking of themselves as good people..

In this animation, president Obama carefully explains why what his administration is doing is good while what George W. Bush’s administration did is bad, even though they may look on the surface to be doing almost identical things. Although it is a parody, what is significant is that Obama may actually believe the words that have been put in his mouth.


  1. slc1 says

    As far as I can tell, Obama seems to be a good father and husband and is nice to his dog

    Didn’t they used to say that Frankenberger was kind to his dog? Yeah I know, Godwin.

  2. kraut says

    “When critics like me attacked this retreat, the administration defended itself by claiming the president was never a “leftist.” But the problem with this administration is not that it is too conservative. And certainly not that it is too liberal. The problem with this administration is that it is too conventional. It has left untouched the corruption that the president identified, which means that it has left as hopeless any real reform for the Left.”

    “Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process, or even consistent, transparent standards.

    Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken, the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided, or his broken promise to lay off medical marijuana in states where dispensing it is legal.

    Why is all this ignored?

    Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism. It’s akin to conservatism’s unforgivable myopia and apologia during the Bush Administration. Are liberals really more discontented with Obama’s failure to reverse the Bush tax cuts than the citizen death warrants he is signing? Is his ham-handed handling of the debt-ceiling really more worthy of mention than the illegal war he waged? Is his willingness to sign deficit reduction that cuts entitlement spending more objectionable than the fact that he outsourced drone strikes to a CIA that often didn’t even know the names of the people it was killing?

    These are the priorities of a perverted liberalism.”

  3. says

    It was clear to me ’08 when Senator Obama decided to vote to give the telecoms immunity for cooperating with Bush spying that and Obama administration would be no better with respect to privacy issues. (Of course, a McCain, Clinton, or Romney administration wouldn’t be an improvement either.) As far as I can see, only a Ron/Rand Paul administration would actually improve things on this front — but such an administration would obviously be a disaster on all other fronts.

  4. Brian E says

    I don’t think motivations are all that important in the grand scheme of things. Or to borrow, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What matters is consequences. How many have died and suffered because presidents had there heart in the right place? The acts were bad if the outcomes were bad, well intentioned or not.

  5. Brian M says

    It’s not being a conspiracy monger to state that it’s the system. Conventional wisdom which benefits the 1/2% above all else.

    If one bucks the system, one comes nowhere near power.

  6. Dunc says

    Well, since you’ve already gone there… Hitler no doubt believed himself to be motivated by the very best of intentions.

    There are no moustache-twirling villians, motivated to do evil in the knowledge that it is is evil, in the real world. Everybody always thinks they’re doing the right thing for good reasons.

    I’m not convinced that people who achieve high office are any more amoral than the rest of us. They’re subject to exactly the same institutional pressures to conform as everybody else – the only difference is that for most of us those pressures result in us doing tasks we might not otherwise do and being nice to people we would otherwise avoid, whereas for holders of high office, those pressures result in them having bombs dropped on innocent people and having suspected terrorists abducted and tortured. People’s behaviour is shaped by their social and institutional context, and their ideas of morality are usually post-hoc justifications.

  7. says

    I’m not convinced that people who achieve high office are any more amoral than the rest of us. They’re subject to exactly the same institutional pressures to conform as everybody else

    Perhaps the problem that selection pressure (if I may) on high office-holders is different. In order to survive and succeed in that field, you have to learn how to lie, manipulate, and compromise. You won’t make it past beginner level unless you’re ruthless and have all the skills of a demagogue in plenty. If there were a politician who told the truth, cared, and was decent, they’d probably be washed out early on – which is why the ones that we have do tend to be more amoral and sneaky than the general population.

    I guess that what I just said is that the same explanation you gave works from 180 degrees the opposite direction.

  8. says

    Power has no value other than in its abuse.* Consequently, anyone seeking power is virtually certain to abuse it – otherwise, why would they have sought it in the first place? Anyone who seeks power over me is, by definition, my enemy.

    (* A typical objection to that comment is that in some situations, people lead when it’s necessary and that’s not abusing power. That is correct, because leadership is consensual – the led grant the leader their attention and follow the leader’s suggestions, but retain their autonomy)

  9. jamessweet says

    I agree with henry_pet… My impression is that Obama is probably a “good man”, but that’s not really here nor there.

    FWIW, my impression of Dubya is that he is probably a “good man”. I don’t think I need to say what I think of his policies. Good men can do terrible, terrible things; and if they are our leaders, the latter is how we must ultimately judge them. (Lest anyone think I am an easy grader, I do not think e.g. Cheney is a “good man”)

  10. says

    Humans appear to think consequentially – we asses the moral value of an action differently based on its consequences. Which, if you think about it, is kind of odd. Here’s an example:

    Bob and I have beers together at a conference and drive home a bit drunk. Bob comes to a curve in the road and misses it, going into a tree at 45mph and totalling his car; he’s fine. I come to a curve in the road and miss it, going into a crowd of children waiting at a bus-stop, killing or maiming 4 of them. We both did exactly the same thing and were both responsible for our actions; neither of us had control over the fact that in one case there was a tree there and in the other it was a crowd of children. But Bob’s insurance pays off his car damage and raises his rates a bit, whereas I may wind up in prison.

    So we seem to assign different weights to the same actions based on the consequences of those actions – to the point where clearly intent is completely irrelevant. In the thought-experiment above it would be irrelevant if I was a really nice guy who just had a beer that one time, whereas Bob was a serial drinker who had totalled a dozen cars. Intent is irrelevant, we just go based on the consequences of the actions.

    Whether Obama means well or not is irrelevant; his decisions have had horrible consequences for a lot of people.

  11. Jeffrey Johnson says

    . There is no evidence that he lost any sleep over it either. In such people’s minds, there seems to be no dissonance.

    This too is trying to read into someone’s mind. If it matters whether Reagan lost sleep, then it matters whether Obama is a good man, and vice versa. To me it matters a lot that I believe President Obama is basically a good man, because if I thought he weren’t, I’d be losing a lot of sleep over what he might do next. But basically I have confidence that he is pursuing the defense of the nation, and making very hard tradeoffs that he believes result in the minimum loss of life.

    But that is a different issue from whether his actions can qualify as evil, regardless of his intentions. Deciding whether certain actions that involve killing are evil or not is a very tough ethical question, not easily solved. It depends on whether you believe in moral absolutes or not.

    Is it moral to kill? I used to think this was an absolute, that killing was always wrong, but I no longer believe that, and generally most people don’t believe that in practice.

    If you examine the trolly problem (allow 5 to die if you do nothing, or pull the switch to kill one and save 5), or the ticking time-bomb problem, you find that most people make relative trade-offs based on moral intuition, and won’t place absolute adherence to an abstract principle over the horror of increasing the number of deaths caused by an action. Most people bend to reduce the number of deaths, even it means they make a choice that leads directly or indirectly to death. Few of us ever have to make such decisions. The President is one of the few people in the world whose job regularly requires that type of decision to be made.

    I haven’t yet watched the video, but I’ve heard a lot of arguments comparing Obama to Bush, and I know it’s always easy to select certain facts and frame an issue to come out the way you want it to in advance. I’ll probably watch it later, and if I see something worth commenting on, I will. For now I’m only reacting to main question of the post.

    On Christmas Day, 2009 there was a failed bombing attempt of a flight from Yemen to Detroit, by a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the Christmas bomber, or the underwear bomber. As I recall, the President was very upset by this event in his first year in office, and though I can’t find the source, I recall that this moment shocked him into a more focused understanding of his job to protect American lives. The thought that the bomb might have succeeded haunted him. I’m sure that the deaths of innocent people killed in drone attacks haunt him too. These would haunt any human being who is not a sociopath.

    We can all argue whether people attacking the US have justification or not, or whether changing US policies might lead to fewer attacks. We can lament over the deaths of innocent people killed by drone strikes, and know that we are expressing human goodness in the form of moral pain and outrage over the destruction of innocent life. Nobody ever wants this to happen, except truly evil people, which are very few and far between.

    But none of that changes the fact the the President has the responsibility to prevent people who already want to attack us now from succeeding. He has the responsibility to ensure we are not in danger of any attacks, one or more of which could be larger than 9/11. I don’t think many of his critics are in a position to explain exactly what the threats are, and exactly what measures will best prevent such an attack from ocurring. At best they can wildly speculate using emotional or intuitive grounds. It’s easy to second guess, but it’s much harder to know exactly what to do, and what threats are being taken into account, and what tradoffs are being made, and what the consequences might be if we weren’t taking certain aggressive actions.

    In comparing Obama to Bush, the biggest disappointment I have is Obama’s continuation of an expanded notion of the state secret privilege, not just to block certain evidence from public revelation in a trial, but to block entire trials from proceeding. This op-ed in the NYT today by Anwar Al-Awlaki’s father is a case in point. Before his son and grandson were killed, Nasser Al Awlaki had an ACLU lawsuit against the government to contest the targeting of his son. The case was not allowed to go to trial because of the state secrets privilege. Many other cases by people with legitimate complaints against our government (Khaled Al Masri, Maher Arar, and Binyamin Mohammed are just a few that come to mind) have similarly been blocked by secrecy, even if many of the relevent and important facts were no longer secrets. It really seems that the government is not just protecting national security, but also protecting its own convenience and covering its own political ass rather than taking the harder route of honoring true principles of rule of law and justice. This is something that makes me furious. This secrecy is like a drug that our government is addicted to, and they need to get weaned from this habit, which will only happen if the public and the Congress force it to happen. There is an act known as the State Secrets Protection Act that would address a lot of the problems we have now, but it has been tabled in the Senate since before Obama was elected.

    Regarding the comparison of Bush to Obama, this seems to me like it’s self-serving for Dick Cheney, Ari Fleischer, and Donald Rumsfeld to chortle about Obama continuing Bush policies, and for the left to claim that Obama is indistinguishable from a Republican. There are a long list of differences certainly in domestic policy that matter. But also, one glaring difference is that Obama has done nothing remotely resembling the wildly reckless full-on invasion of Iraq. I think that if starting with September 9/11 we had stuck with the policies of Obama, fighting Al Qaeda with drones, far fewer people on all sides would have been killed. If it were possible for Iraq to have been an operation similar to Libya, again far less loss of life would have resulted. The overthrow of Qaddaffi has given Libyans the opportunity to get out from under an insane self-indulgent egomaniac dictator who was squandering the country’s resources and suppressing the ambitions and ignoring the needs of the majority of Libyans. If you talk to Iraqis and Libyans, you’d get very different opinions about how the actions affected their country, far more negative from Iraqis, and far more positive from Libyans.

    Some might say that despite these differences, Obama is still a ruthless killer or something like that. I think these differences are important and matter.

    I could be wrong in my assumptions that our drone strikes are based on detailed surveillance and intelligence reports. I could be wrong in my assumptions that the pilots don’t fire unless targets are cleared based on very good reason to believe that a high value target, otherwise known as a person intent on killing lots of Americans, is on the receiving end. Maybe this country and its President really are evil because we randomly launch missiles at innocent people. I don’t have enough evidence to know the truth. But I also don’t know enough to say what would happen if we didn’t launch those strikes, what the results might be if an enemy intent on killing as many Americans as possible was allowed to operate freely and unhindered. There is a difference between cost free easy opinion that makes one feel morally superior, and having to deal with gut-wrenching life-or-death reality that is unforgiving of mistakes.

    So the moral tradeoffs involved resemble a gigantic version of the trolly problem from ethics, except with far more complexity and far less certainty about the outcomes. It’s very easy to take a morally superior attitude toward the trolly driver after he has killed someone stuck on the tracks, without knowing about or thinking about the five people he saved.

    People condemn the President as if they know with certainty what is done and why it is done, and how much better they themselves would do things if they were President. Most such assessments are well intentioned but based on wishful thinking, based on a notion of how the world ought to be, not on how the world actually is. It’s fairly easy to idealize, but much harder to know the facts and details of how the world really is, and to estimate what the real consequences and tradeoffs are in real situations. I doubt that any of the President’s most sincere and well meaning critics, if they were suddenly placed in the Oval Office and given the responsibilities of the President, and confronted with the intelligence estimates and threat assessments that he sees, which are the best efforts of lots of very smart people trying to do an impossibly difficult job, would still have the same beliefs and opinions that are so easily formed based on good moral intentions and emotional reactions to tragedy, observed from a position of safety, without real risk or responsibility.

  12. MNb says

    “Of course people’s motivations matter when we judge their actions.”
    I’m not so sure. For someone getting killed (say a child by an American drone) or even injured it doesn’t matter much what the motivations of the killer were, does it?
    As for Obama the question that interests me most: what choice does he actually have? On a more general level: what chance does a candidate have which would have made choices we like better in ethical terms?

  13. slc1 says

    I think the main difference between Obama and Bush is that Bush charged into invading Iraq, based on phoney information. Obama, has steadfastly resisted being drawn into the ongoing situation in Syria and has been the subject of considerably criticism for this reluctance, even from supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg, although Goldberg has become more understanding because of recent events where factions of the opposition are fighting amongst themselves. I don’t know how much longer he can hold out as the Syria situation threatens to spread to Syria’s neighbors. At this point, all the options are bad, as has been the case from day one.

  14. Mano Singham says

    You say:

    I could be wrong in my assumptions that our drone strikes are based on detailed surveillance and intelligence reports. I could be wrong in my assumptions that the pilots don’t fire unless targets are cleared based on very good reason to believe that a high value target, otherwise known as a person intent on killing lots of Americans, is on the receiving end.

    Would you accept it if someone very, very close close to you (a child, and sibling, a parent, a loved one) was killed by such a strike when they were traveling abroad and the president said that he had good reasons to kill them but couldn’t tell you what they were and that you just had to take his word that they deserved to die? Would you accept the explanation that it was done on the basis of the “best efforts of lots of very smart people” and that that was all that you needed to know?

  15. henry_pet says

    It may matter to biographers and members of groups whether they can regard one of their leaders as moral or ethical. Not so much to the victims of aggression, who generally aren’t consulted. The discussion of moral dilemmas seems like a contrived comedy of manners in the face of war’s devastation, when it should be obvious that the overriding concern is to end the violence and make peace.

    It’s possible to celebrate leaders for their ethical behavior. I’m proud of Jimmy Carter, when he speaks forthrightly on controversial subjects (Snowden’s whistleblowing, Israeli apartheid, Venezuelan elections). Despite some truly awful decisions made while in office (arms for Indonesia, protection of Ferdinand Marcos, the proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan), he has demonstrated a consistent record of ethical clarity while out of power. I celebrate Carter as an exemplar of my group (Americans) as I celebrate Mandela as an example for humankind, even though Mandela accepted violence in pursuit of equality.

    When Obama refuses to countenance being bound by the rule of law (when, exactly, is he constrained from ordering his servants to kill people?) I don’t care how conflicted he is. His decision, not the conflict, is the moral act. Part of being a leader is knowing that there are places you just can’t, or shouldn’t, go – no matter how much you are egged on by your staff or how it might improve your ratings. If Obama could make an ethically complex situation (thou shalt not kill … except …) seem simpler by applying a hypothetical framework (it’s OK to torture just this once, because if we pull out his fingernails he might tell us how to defuse the bomb), his angst is completely besides the point. I am more concerned with the actual victims. People, especially those in power, need to be really careful that they are not being driven to make decisions based on faulty frameworks (e.g. defining all male victims as “enemy combatants” unless proved otherwise, post mortem) or on what they think is best for people they don’t even know.

    I would have a lot more sympathy for Obama if he were a lot more vocal about saying “NO!,” and then sticking to his position in the face of people who advocate for greater violence. So far, Obama has refused to go to war against Iran, good for him, but he is pursuing war by other means. He is allowing himself to slowly be dragged into the conflict in Syria. Not so good for him. Ditto Libya (I’m not sure how much the U.S. promoted this or was dragged into it). He’s acknowledged a legal limit to American involvement in Iraq (he was forced into it by actions of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks and the Iraqis). He has also willingly presided over an expansion of the war in Afghanistan by refusing to stand firm to his generals.

    The older I get, the less willing I am to rely on the judgment of those who are said to be wiser and more experienced than I am, and who have access to secret intelligence. The more I pay attention, the less it looks like they are being reasonable and the more it looks like they are driven by small ambition and convenience, and are able to keep ethical concerns of mass violence at a psychological distance. To be frank, I think most people could do a better job than our current leadership, if they stood by their inherent nature and refused to be swayed by realpolitik or ambition.

    What does this moral choice matter to a town which is terrorized by the constant presence in the sky of drones, knowing that at any instant they might send rockets to blow up your house, or your dad, or your neighbor, or you? Would you take comfort in the assertion that they really thought you were an enemy, or at least, this is less bad/evil than a full-out martial invasion? Would it matter to the victims that the perpetrator was or was not conflicted about their decision, and came very close to not authorizing the attack?

    Perhaps President Obama feels he has a binary choice – either kill a bunch of evil plotters now or take the consequences of a future terrorist act. The reality is often there’s another way of looking at the problem which takes creativity, humility, an abhorrence to needless violence, and courage.

  16. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I would of course want to know more, and I”ve repeatedly argued in favor of ending the secrecy. The government withholds too much information. That is why I posted the link to Nasser Al Awlaki’s op-ed in the Times, because I support his case, I think his first ACLU trial should have been heard, and I agree with him that he deserves an explanation of what happened. If the government makes mistakes, they need to be held accountable. If they abuse power, they need to be held accountable. This is an entirely seperate question from whether or not it is sometimes justifiable for the government to kill certain people.

    Certainly it has always been considered justified when people are waging war against us, to fight back and kill them. Of course their is a terminology problem in using the word “war”. Is Al Qaeda actively involved in trying to attack Americans and kill them? Yes. Is it a traditional war? No. These are people who would kill atheists, stone adulterers, shoot little girls in the head for studying, behead apostates, who think the government of Saudi Arabia and Iran are too liberal, and that Taliban style purity is needed across the entire Muslim world. We aren’t fighting Muslims or Islam. We are fighting religious fanatics who think that killing Americans pleases their God. What’s more they think it is an inevitable divine destiny for them to be victorious, and they are willing to die to realize this goal. So it’s not the kind of problem you just ignore and it goes away.

    I think my case can best be summarized by saying: 1. let’s not go overboard and assume the government is totally evil because we don’t know exactly what they are doing. 2. They are doing a very hard job and have a tremendous weight of responsibility to bear, realities that outsiders lobbing easy criticisms don’t have to deal with. 3. Generally I think most people in our military and in our civilian government are trying to do the best possible job, and they understand that we can’t just go randomly killing anyone at any time. This isn’t a hollywood thriller, its real people making tough moral tradeoffs. They are human and can make mistakes or become desensitized. 4. None of this implies we should passively trust and accept their word. It implies the opposite. The middle way here acknowledges that the government is probably doing a better job than most critics realize, but of course abuse of power can creep in, and mistakes are possible. The middle way is to realize we depend on and need to some degree to trust that lots of very competent and experienced people are doing a lot of good work in our government, in the security services, and in the military, but we need to have citizen’s rights to not just trust but also we need to verify. We need to allow victims of our government’s abuse of power or mistakes to be able to publicly challenge the government in a court of law. We need to have access to information, and not be kept in the dark by a paternalistic government that knows better than we do, and we need to have the right to question, to publicly debate the details, and we need to have the right to raise protest. These are basically our First Amendment rights, which become a very weak expression of personal egotism when we are denied information and knowledge about what our government of the people, for the people, and by the people is doing. The First Amendment was designed so that a strong civil society can serve as a check on government power, a function completely disabled by government secrecy. It wasn’t really intended to allow people to send photos and videos of their private parts (though this is okay under the First as well, it’s not a primary intent).

    I have never advocated just trusting the government passively, but people’s “either or” cognitive reflexes always seem to make them jump to such conclusions. If I’m not loudly denouncing the drone attacks on Al Qaeda, then I must be content to trust everything the government says, or I’m some kind of uncritical sycophant Obama worshiper. If I don’t enthusicastically back claims that our government is senselessly committing acts of irresponsible murder without any regard or respect whatsoever for innocent human life, then I must be evil too, or I must think it’s okay to believe everything the government says.

    Generally I think there is some truth on both sides of most arguments. I don’t mean that simply splitting the difference is the path to truth, but I do mean that getting tribal about stark dichotomies, such as “the government can do no wrong, and can be fully trusted” or “the government is totally corrupted and evil and can’t be trusted on anything” is not very likely to lead to any truth at all. I think the extreme narratives about the evil Fascist police state are expressions of anger at specific problems, but they are over-broad generalizations that don’t capture the truth, and can’t be taken seriously.

    My particular complaint about the government started during the Bush administration, and when Obama continued it I was furious and wrote angry letters to the White House and to newspapers, but nobody seemed to notice or care then. And I still think people are focusing on the wrong issues. The cases of Khaled El Masri, a German who was subjected to exraordinary rendition because of a mistake deriving from the fact that he had the same name as someone they were looking for, and similarly a Canadian/Syrian Maher Arar was sent to Syria and tortured for many months because of a similar error, were both denied trials when they tried to bring suit against the government. During the Obama administration a group of men who were victims of extraordinary rendition tried to bring suit against the private air carrier hired by the CIA to transport them, Jeppeson Dataplan. The case, Binyamin Mohammed v. Jeppeson Dataplan was denied a hearing because the rendition program, which had been plastered all over the papers, was supposedly secret. This kind of invulnerability to being held responsible and accountable for errors and abuses of power is the primary problem we have to fight today.

    The case of Nasser Al Awlaki is just one more in a large number of cases that have been completely stifled using the pretext of national security. It used to be that state secrets were only invoked to prevent particular evidence from being publicly revealed in a trial. Since 9/11 that has expanded to the very disturbing trend that the government can block entire cases if they depend on any state secrets, even if much of the case evidence need not be kept secret. This is an abuse of secrecy.

    Even if the drone program were declared illegal, and if data gathering were declared illegal and all American’s data was protected from being stored by the government, these victories would still leave the government free to get up to some other mischief, which it could hide from the public and render itself invulnerable to accountability for abuse and error. We shouldn’t fight against specific cases of government abuse, but get to the root of the problem, which is transparency and accountability in general. This is why I think the abuse of secrecy and the blocking of access to the courts is the number one point we should be making and fighting for. If that is accomplished, I think there is a better chance that programs like the drone war and data gathering can be monitored by the public, and that individuals and groups have recourse when they are improperly targeted, and citizen’s can hold officials accountable when they go too far, and victims can be compensated when mistakes are made.

    In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have these problems. In an ideal world, we could love everyone, wage peace, and no innocent person would ever be killed. I don’t believe we live in that world, and no amount of longing and hoping and wishing for it, and no amount of anger and disappointment over the fact that the world doesn’t live up to our ideals, will change that reality.

  17. henry_pet says

    I pretty much agree with Jeffrey Johnson’s most recent posting. Government actions concerning rendition and assassination are consistent with a desire to maintain secrecy and control information and avoid accountability before the law and the public. Government actions also demonstrate vengefulness against people who have attempted to open up discussion by letting the American public know what the government is doing in their name. These actions cannot be tolerated.

  18. Jeffrey Johnson says

    There is really little to disagree with here, except I think you are wrong that we are being dragged into the Syrian conflict. It appears to be turning into the same kind of sectarian conflict that we unleashed in Iraq, and there is little to be gained by stepping into the middle of that, and everyone with a brain knows it. I think that the only goal now is to prevent either side from winning, hope for a standoff, and hope that once the sectarian rage is exhausted, that a good settlement can be had at the negotiating table. We can’t win that fight, but we can hope it fizzles out sooner rather than later.

    Once we’ve completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and considering the withdrawal from Iraq, the reduction in needless violence compared to the Bush administration will be tremendous. I think we are applying every tool in the box to combat violent extremists around the world, and if there is something creative you have to suggest that they aren’t trying and it would work, maybe the state department or defense department would like to hire you. I wonder what your suggestions are.

    I’ve always liked Carter, and I think he has been unfairly maligned by conservatives based on dishonest spin.

    It’s interesting you mentioned that Carter has held to high ethical standards since being out of power. I think there is a reason for that. It’s much easier to do when you don’t have responsibility for the consequences of decisions. I suspect that Obama will hold to a similar high ethical standard when he is out of power. Usually when I listen to arguments from the left about how things ought to be, I’m in total agreement. The only difference then is that I accept the fact that the world as it is differs a lot from how the world ought to be, and that changing the world is damn hard.

    The problem with reality is that it is messy, and does not often provide choices that allow simple moral clarity. Of course nobody wants anybody to suffer. We all want an ideal world of peace. The problem is we are dealing with people who want to kill Americans because we represent modernity and everything un-Islamic, religious fanatics who think Saudi Arabia is too liberal, and whom we can neither negotiate with or ignore.

    There is a case to be made that some changes to American foreign policy might reduce the motives to attack us, but how effective that could be is doubtful, and it involves unacceptable capitulation to threats. Even if capitulating to Al Qaeda’s demands were possible and advisable, what then? Are we to stand by in isolationist denial and let Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, the Taliban, and many many others grow in power until a real war breaks out from North Africa to South Asia over the new Caliphate? This doesn’t seem advisable to me. In my view, greater peace will rule the world when liberal values of freedom, gender equality, education, and democracy have become universal, and economic interdependence and a higher standard of living defuses the will to fight for power. Religious fundamentalism is antithetical to that aim, and actively opposes it with violence. They want rigid social control according to the Koran. How is it a good thing to ignore people who will blow up hotels or burn schools regardless of which innocent people are inside, and allow them to gain power so they can stop little girls from getting an education, force little boys to study nothing but the Koran, stone adulterers, behead apostates and atheists, and compel Jews and Christians under threat of violence to convert to Islam? Most Muslims don’t want this, and we have no fight with them. We are their allies against the extremists. I think our violence is fairly carefully directed at and focused on those who fight for and support such an Islamic nightmare.

  19. henry_pet says

    Thanks to Johnson for his thoughtful comments. I agree with most of them. I’ll keep my comments brief because I’m at work.

    “The problem is we are dealing with people who want to kill Americans because we represent modernity and everything un-Islamic…”

    No, this is a fallacy. There are a miniscule number of people who are actually trying to mount terrorist attacks inside the U.S. When these successful and unsuccessful actual terrorists (distinct from Taliban fighters) are interviewed, they say they are motivated by American attacks on Muslims. Not because we are a modern country.

    There are more people who are allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who want us out of their lives, by force of arms if need be. I can’t say I blame them. I don’t term them terrorists unless they target civilians, and at any rate they aren’t targeting American civilians.

    Islamic fundamentalists’ attitudes about social control, athiests, women, etc. may be – to misuse a term – antedeluvian. But it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and it doesn’t affect our government or way of life. It’s not up to us to change their ways from 30,000 feet. It’s up to their people to deal with it, and we can cheer them on, but not with bombs. As Juan Cole has documented at, Pakistanis regularly reject fundamentalists when they run for elections.

    The simplest change we could do to our foreign policy, which would most likely have a positive effect and at worst would have little negative effects to ACTUAL homeland security, would be to stop the drone attacks in Pakistan which destabilize the civilian government there and provoke anti-Americanism among the general public, naturally enough.

  20. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Thanks to you also for your insightful remarks.

    Carter doesn’t disappoint with his remarks in Germany: he praised the service Snowden did in releasing information to the American people about what the government they pay for is doing, and he went as far as to say that America doesn’t have a functioning democracy at this time, which in some sense is an exaggeration, but in a few very real senses is exactly correct: the lesser sense is because of dysfunctional partisan gridlock, but the most important sense is that democracy can not function, the First Amendment cannot function, when government shields itself from public view behind a veil of secrecy.

    It is important that a former President publicly gives Snowden some support. Sadly many American’s view of Carter is poisoned by the incessant propaganda fom the right.

    The US media didn’t cover this, and it only got attention here because bloggers posted translations from this Spiegel article:

    You’re right that the people of Pakistan have become more anti-American because of the drone attacks. There have been a lot of them there, which I suspect are mostly aimed at the Taliban who are engaged in cross border attacks on Americans in Afghanistan. I believe withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan will probably include a cessation of drone attacks in Waziristan and the northern border region.

    The majority of Muslims everywhere, including Pakistan, are not of the most extreme Takfiri mind-set, but a large mainstream of devout Muslims appear quite fundamentalist to the Western eye. Majorities in Pakistan support blasphemy laws, for example. But these people are basically peaceful and no threat to the US or to other Muslims.

    The main victims of the Taliban and other violent Islamists are other Muslims. This is the basic meaning of Takfir, to declare other Muslims to be kafir, infidels, so that they are fair targets of violence. I agree that it isn’t directly true that, as Bush phrased it, they want to attack us for our freedom. Everyone wants freedom, but everyone views freedom and its benefits differently. But indirectly, it is our views on freedom, on women’s rights, on sexual permissiveness, our casual irreverent attitudes toward dress and expression, and the secular freedom of thought under democratic principles that set us apart and bring us into conflict with Salafist and Wahhabi Islamists. It is their desire to build extremely repressive societies, and their willingness to kill other Muslims to frighten people into toeing their extremist line, that unites us with most Muslims in opposing terror.

    It isn’t our responsibility to police the world, but we do have a strategic interest in not allowing Al Qaeda or Boko Haram or other extremist groups to acquire too much power, and doing so can save the lives of lots of Muslims. To some degree the line that America is attacking Muslims, so I will attack Americans, is code for the propaganda myth that America is at war with Islam, and just because an angry young Muslim man says it, doesn’t mean it represents the whole story. It also means they want us out of the way so they can get on with killing Muslims who disagree with their extreme views. A lot of the Muslims we have killed are ones who have killed or intend to kill other Muslims, and our attacks have the tacit support of Muslims in leadership positions in Pakistan and Yemen. They understand that allowing these groups to go unchecked can threaten the lives of a lot of Muslims.

    I have the moral imagination to understand that everyone believes they are doing good, including Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. They believe a holy Caliphate with purity enforced by severe discipline, the good old fashioned way, is the ideal of peace and goodness, and they are willing to fight for it. This is what makes all the killing and conflict truly tragic and full of irony. They aren’t different from us in spirit, but very different in the specific cultural beliefs that guide our values and choices.

    I can entertain a romantic appreciation for the simplicity and sincerity of the life these people want, just as I can fondly imagine a North America that had not been over-run by Europeans and their technology, and had retained the naturalness of Native American culture. But it seems an irresistible force of history that scientific, technological, and economic progress displace more basic cultural forms, and it seems that is the force that Islamists are fighting against. It’s obvious they use and enjoy technology, but with such progress also comes the empowerment of greater individual freedoms and opportunities for individual creativity and fulfillment. This is what they fear. The impulse we see in the extreme forms of political Islam is a totalitarian desire to crush this freedom and individual expression of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    So in a more abstract sense there is a war against the kind of life we think should be open to every young girl and boy with a head full of dreams, there is a hatred of the chaotic individualism we represent, and like the Salafists, we think our way is the right path to peace in the world. Which is why we cringe at the horror of Boko Haram, or the shooting Malala Yousafzai, or the splashing of acid on women’s faces, and we think something must be done, and we feel we can and must intervene somehow.

    I realize there are limits to what we can do, and there are limits in what is appropriate for us to do, and it is easy for the best intentions to go awry. I cringe and wince with shame over our mistakes, our murders, at the suffering of innocent people. I still ache with shame whenever I think of the two million Vietnamese lives taken, or all the death in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are not worthwhile ways to spread ideals.

    We need to allow our ideals to spread based on their own merits, because people want them. I retain patient hopes about the ultimate results of the Arab Spring, and I realize some of the liberation was from Cold War remnants of US supported authoritarians. If we are patient the world will evolve to modernity. But I think the nexus of Al Qaeda and the Taliban that grew out of resistance to the Soviet attempts to control Afghanistan in the eighties remains a cautionary tale, both of the unintended consequences of large scale intervention, but also of the danger that can grow in corners of the world where we least expect it to threaten us. This had negative consequences not only for Americans, but for people around the world who suffered from violent terror attacks. So we can’t necessarily be pacifist and benevolent or isolationist and expect nothing but benign results. I understand the horror and shame when American power is misused and innocent people die. But I try to balance that against the horror of attacks from New York to London, from Madrid to Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia. I try to balance it against the horror of all the Malalas in the world, and the crazy killings of Boko Haram, and the rise of Islamist terror in Mali. I think there is a role for limited modest US involvement, in cooperation with local authorities, in containing the spread of the Boko Harams of the world. And this will result in tragic deaths, but for the cause of preventing a larger number of tragic deaths, for the purpose of enabling little girls and boys to get an education that will help them build a brighter future for their countries. They call terrorism asymmetric warfare, but there is also a symmetry. We are just like them, fighting for our ideals, and like they do, we justify our violent offense as a form of defense. We need to take care not to become monsters, which we have the power to become. But if we do nothing, I don’t believe these problems just go away, but in fact will grow larger and larger. It’s not like the world is all peace and love, except for the American brutes and their drones. It’s not like if we stop, there will be no more killing. Given the power we have, it may very well be the moral thing for us to do is to take action when people are threatened by terror, even if it makes us immoral killers in the eyes of those who refuse to look at the whole picture.

    Absolutely the public needs to know what the government is doing in our name, and why, and we have the right to complain about it and try to stop it when we think it is the wrong approach. We have the right to understand the reasons and the consequences of American actions around the world.

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