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“Liberals”: Partisan or Principled?

(Photo: Pete Souza / White House)

After criticizing Bush’s militarism, many “liberals” fail to denounce Obama’s targeted killing program. This partisan-based lack of opposition to counter-progressive policies undermines the legitimacy of left-of-center advocacy and calls for new principles-based forms of political organization.

Revelations from the Obama adminstration’s Department of Justice 16-page “white paper”, leaked to NBC News, has sparked an interesting debate among liberals about drone strikes, targeted killing and perpetual war. Supporters of the Democratic Party, people who champion causes such as marriage equality and a wider social safety net, are put in an awkward situation. After spending years criticizing Bush’s militarism, many “liberals” narrowly critique, acquiesce to, or support Obama’s targeted killing program. This partisan-based lack of opposition to clearly counter-progressive policies undermines the legitimacy of left-of-center advocacy on issues of civil liberties and beyond.

The DOJ’s white paper, a summary of legal memos, justifies assassinating US citizens who are suspected leaders of al-Qaeda or “associated forces” on a few conditions. If an “informed, high-level official” in the US government believes the suspect is an “imminent threat,” capturing the suspect is “infeasible” and the operation is “consistent with applicable laws of war principles,” the government can assassinate that suspect.

The typical definition of “imminent threat” in international legal contexts (laid out by Daniel Webster when he was US Secretary of State during the “Caroline affair”), is “necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” However, the white paper stretches that definition beyond recognition to where it “does not require the United States to have clear evidence of a specific attack.” Obama has already authorized the extra-judicial assassination of three US citizens – Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman.

This is part of Obama’s continuation of perpetual war against terrorism that began under Bush shortly after 9/11. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force gave the executive branch wide latitude to wage war around the entire world against alleged terror threats. Obama has continued this global war by different means.

Unlike Bush, Obama does not rely on large ground invasions by conventional military forces to wage perpetual war. His administration uses drones (with strikes mainly launched by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command), cruise missiles, cluster bombs, AC-130 gunships, helicopter attacks, airstrikes (particularly in Somalia), local proxies (used prominently in the Horn of Africa, trained by private military companies), and raids by special operations forces working around the world. Every week, as reported by the New York Times, President Obama and his counterterrorism advisers meet together to decide whether and whom they will assassinate. There is little to no due process. Mere suspicion can be enough to get a person killed. Furthermore, the Obama administration has institutionalized targeted killing through the “disposition matrix,” which is, according to a Washington Post report, a database of the identities of suspected terrorists around the world targeted for “disposition” – meaning death.

While shrouded in secrecy, much is known about the targeted killing program thanks to independent reports and selective leaks. ProPublica provides a summary of the program based on such reports. Since 2004, the United States has launched 364 drone strikes in Pakistan with 313 carried out by Obama, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). According to a New York Times report, any “military-aged male” in a strike zone is automatically assumed to be a “militant,” unless proven innocent after death. Moreover, the United States launches drone strikes at rescuers and mourners in what are known as “double tap” strikes.

Based on TBIJ’s figures, it is estimated that out of around 4,000 reported killed, anywhere between 500 to 1,000 civilians have been killed by drone strikes and other covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Only 2 percent of those killed by drones are high-level militants, while the rest are low-level fighters or civilians. A report done by the law schools at Stanford and New York University (NYU) points out that drone strikes in Pakistan, in addition to physical harm, terrorize people and inflict “anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”

The drone strike program undermines basic constitutional and human rights principles. However, many public figures who typically lean “liberal” have acquiesced to or openly supported Obama’s targeted killing program.

Touré, the ostensibly center-left-leaning co-host of The Cycle on MSNBC, announced his boisterous support for Obama’s assassination program. On Twitter, he said Obama “can and should kill [al-Qaeda] leaders whenever possible.” In further comments, he dismissed due process rights: When someone on Twitter told him a “US citizen is allowed due process no matter what they have done, even an [al-Qaeda] leader,” Touré responded, “No.” Another person asked, “You are fine [with] the White House deciding who is guilty and who should die?” Touré replied, “He’s the Commander in Chief.” Afterward, Touré went on The Cycle to clarify his views. He said, “I am not pro-drone, but I am pro-killing those who are working to kill us,” while downplaying the massive civilian deaths and suffering caused by drone strikes.

Krystal Ball, another co-host for The Cycle, said on the show that she “trusts” Obama, more than a Republican, with assassination powers, although she critiqued the lack of transparency. Similarly, a typically “liberal”-leaning blogger admitted, “I support President Obama’s attacks,” even though “[i]f a [R]epublican administration were executing these practices, I’d probably join the chorus to condemn them,” because “I trust this president’s judgment.”

They are not alone. A study by Salon revealed that 27 percent of white “racial liberals” (liberal on racial issues) support assassinating, without trial, US citizens suspected of terrorism ties. That number jumped to 48 percent once they’re told it’s Obama’s policy. For African-American “liberals,” the results were fairly similar.

Some others who typically veer left have expressed discomfort with the program, but on narrow grounds. The critiques have generally focused on lack of transparency, minute legal issues, and killing of US citizens, while downplaying the suffering of non-US citizens under drone strikes.

What is troubling here is the clear acceptance of the premise of perpetual war. Touré’s comment on The Cycle is explicit: “But we are at war with al-Qaeda right now. And if you join al-Qaeda, you lose the right to be an American; you lose the right to due process; you declare yourself an enemy of this nation. And you are committing treason.” This reasoning disregards the fact that the Constitution provides some due process for those commit treason. Many “liberals” cosign the doctrine of perpetual war, but differ with conservatives in how it is waged and by whom.

This group is not an anachronism: It continues a historical legacy of militarism within some strains of American liberalism/progressivism. Consider John Dewey, the champion of progressive education, democracy and ethics – who supported World War I and America’s entry in it. President Woodrow Wilson, often considered the prototype of the modern “liberal,” took the US into World War I, after running on an antiwar platform, claiming it was a “war for democracy and human rights.”

During the Cold War, many leaders whom the historical record has generally deemed “liberal” – folks who advocated for progressive reforms stateside – sang the mantra of fighting communism around the world. The foundation of the modern National Security State was laid by President Harry Truman – crusader of the national “Fair Deal” program that would have substantially increased the minimum wage, universal health care and job aid. The Truman administration signed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Central Intelligence Agency, and created the National Security Agency through secretive internal memos and directives. During the Cold War, the CIA assassinated leaders, toppled democratic governments, and waged proxy wars throughout the Third World to protect US hegemony. Those same institutions are being used in the War on Terror for domestic surveillance, targeted killing and other covert activities.

Many “liberal” intellectuals, such as Arthur Schlesinger and Walt Rostow, supported the US war in Vietnam in order to fight global communism. President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat widely viewed as liberal, expanded the number of US military advisers, introduced by Eisenhower and launched airstrikes in South Vietnam, dropping Agent Orange along the countryside. After Kennedy’s assassination, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, another liberal, sent thousands of ground troops into Vietnam on the false pretense that the Vietnamese attacked US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. As with the Iraq war, people later realized the war was based on a lie. In 1975, the war ended with the deaths of 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese.

Historian Andrew Bacevich, in an email, added further historical context to liberal acquiescence to Obama’s assassination program. According to Bacevich:

“Ever since Vietnam, serious critical thinking about US national security policy has tended to come from the left. Although the right has produced a few critics of American empire – Pat Buchanan serves as an example – conservatism in recent decades has tended to imply support for militarism. As a consequence, when Republicans control the White House, debate over military policy tends to be lively. Critics on the left feel no inhibitions about speaking up. But the converse is also true. When Democrats control the White House, serious debate recedes. Although Republican hawks will bellow about the need for more aggressive policies, Democrats tend to keep mum and support ‘their guy.’ That was true when Clinton was president, and it’s true now under Obama – and that explains why this egregious policy of targeted assassination is attracting less debate than it deserves.”

The reality of Bacevich’s analysis was displayed clearly during Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s confirmation to be Obama’s new CIA Director. A Republican Senator from Kentucky, Tea Party favorite, and son of the libertarian firebrand politician Ron Paul, Rand Paul spoke for thirteen hours critiquing the targeted killing program and demanded an answer from the Obama administration on whether it had the authority to assassinate American citizens on US soil. Attorney Eric Holder later responded “No.” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, while voting for Brennan’s confirmation, joined Paul’s filibuster. Senators Patrick Leahy, Jeff Merkley (both Democrats), and independent Senator Bernie Sanders did not join the filibuster, but voted against the confirmation, along with Paul. Aside from them, no Democrats joined Paul’s efforts.

Among the mainstream “liberal” commentariat on MSNBC and blogs, the typical response was to ignore or ridicule Paul rather than focus on the issues he raised. MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell called Paul “paranoid,” while Touré said his filibuster an example of “grandstanding.” While Rand Paul has odious right-wing politics elsewhere, such as opposing the Civil Rights Act because it goes against his views on property rights and endorsing Mitt Romney, the challenge to Obama’s targeted killing program seems as though it should resonate for all civil liberties advocates. What’s sad is that Rand was the only one mounting a serious challenge to that program. Even many Republicans, such as Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and notably John Yoo, the author of Bush administration secret legal memos justifying torture, joined the chorus denouncing Paul.

The term “liberal” is hardly meaningful when it comes to national security policy. When a Republican is in office, “liberals” will challenge US militarism. But when a Democrat is in office, that challenge recedes for largely partisan reasons. Among public figures, there appears to be a shared consensus between mainstream liberals and conservatives around foreign and national security policy: Both tend to endorse the premises of perpetual war, militarism, and maintaining US global hegemony.

This means that those committed to international peace and human rights cannot look to mainstream politicians or talking heads for solutions. Such solutions must come from outside of the partisan liberal-conservative framework. Advocates of peace must develop an independent analysis and critique of militarism, along with a framework for creating true international peace and justice and a movement to achieve it – in other words, a new antiwar movement. The movement need not – or perhaps, should not – be grounded in a partisan ideology. Rather, it should focus on principles of fundamental human rights and empathy for those who suffer, both stateside and in far-away war zones. Unlike partisan loyalties, commitment to principle extends beyond election cycles, which is crucial for social movements. Only a strong antiwar movement, powered not by candidates and figureheads, but by the people – along the lines of the “Occupy” movement – can present an alternative to the narrow choices between massive military occupations and shadow wars with drones and special operations. The stale mantras of mainstream political media and beltway politicians will never hasten a more enlightened foreign policy: We must look beyond the certified “liberal” talking points and formulate an agenda that is truly based on core values of peace and justice for all.

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