Commentary Magazine


The Cynical Idealism of Obama

According to a press account, Barack Obama says the United States cannot “impose” its values on other countries, but argued that principles such as democracy and the rule of law were universal. In an interview with the BBC ahead of his visit later in the week to the Middle East and then Europe, Obama emphasized that,

[T]he United States must lead by example — which firstly meant closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Cuba. “The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture,” the president told the broadcaster. But he stressed: “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity.” Obama said he would be “encouraging” countries on his trip to promote these values, but added: “I think the thing that we can do most importantly is serve as a good role model. “And that’s why closing Guantanamo, from my perspective, as difficult as it is, is important. “Because part of what we want to affirm to the world is that these are values that are important even when it’s hard, even especially when it’s hard, and not just when it’s easy.”

Here’s the deal, though. Because of recent court rulings, detainees at Guantanamo Bay will receive habeas corpus rights. So closing Guantanamo Bay is, at this point, essentially a symbolic issue – a matter of where to keep detainees, not how to treat them. Yet Obama still insists Guantanamo Bay must be shut down and he pretends that doing so is taking a stand for American principles and the Constitution. It is neither.

When it comes to other areas, though, Obama is violating his own self-proclaimed standards. As Jack Goldsmith pointed out in the Washington Post, “A little-noticed consequence of elevating standards at Guantanamo is that the government has sent very few terrorist suspects there in recent years. Instead, it holds more terrorists — without charge or trial, without habeas rights, and with less public scrutiny — at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.” We have around 600 detainees at Bagram Air Base; does it matter to Obama and his supporters that those detainees receive fewer rights than those who were held at Guantanamo Bay? How can he boast about closing down GITMO, where detainees have unprecedented rights, yet continue to house detainees at Bagram Air Base, where they don’t – and still pretend he’s taking a principled stand?

In addition, President Obama endorses the idea of indefinite detention without trial for people he believes pose a threat. Exactly how does that square with his view, and the view of his liberal supporters, of what it means to be a “good role model”?

Also, according to the New York Times, “The United States is now relying heavily on foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain all but the highest-level terrorist suspects seized outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to current and former American government officials.” Relying on foreign governments to hold and question terrorist suspects increases the odds of abuse; does that matter to the man who says he believes “with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values”? And what about that fact that the Obama Administration says it will revive military commissions and engages in targeted killings of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban figures in Pakistan and Afghanistan? In the World According to Obama, why isn’t this evidence of a government succumbing to a “season of fear”?

One can argue on the merits for and against Obama’s policies. I happen to think that several of his national security decisions are wise and defensible. But we should be clear about this: Obama is getting away with a cynical game. He is bashing his predecessor while adopting most of the policies he inherited from him. He focuses the national security debate on practices that were stopped a half-decade ago (waterboarding). He is pretending to stand for his interpretation of fundamental American values even as he violates the very standards he has set.

Barack Obama is able to wrap his Chicago cynicism in the language of idealism, making him appear to be what he is not. But much of the press, which has an unprecedented emotional investment in Obama and his success (see Robert Samuelson’s blistering critique here), has decided to look the other way, time and again. Countless reporters and commentators thirst for his approval; they clearly count it a privilege to be part of his team. At least a few of them have done us the courtesy of doing so explicitly and officially rather than maintaining the fiction of disinterestedness.

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