Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The President, combating terror and the paper of record


Alternate headline: How he stopped worrying and learned to love the drone.

Lengthy but fascinating read regarding Obama's, eh, evolving views and actions with respect to combating the war on terror in today's New York Times.

The Times goes to significant lengths to shade and nuance things... a treatment that we're positive would not be extended to the previous administration if a similar piece were to be written. To wit, behold the headline of the article: Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will. Puffery to follow?

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.

In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.

They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands. When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

We suppose it's good to be the king but we don't know how comfortable we are with the Commander-in-Chief being so cavalier with respect to a life and death decision of a U.S. citizen.

The article sneaks in this paragraph before darting off in another direction:

His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a “Whac-A-Mole” approach to counterterrorism; the invention of a new category of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting; and presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.

Wait, what? Did they just suggest they manipulate the body count to produce lower civilian bystander numbers? That's pretty much how we read it.

Later in the article they get around to how this was accomplished?

It is also because Mr. Obama 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, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

We don't want to go off on a tangent but this fairly represents the hypocrisy both in the media and the President's water-carriers public and private. There is a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the legality and ethics of what's going on here but no one wants to have it. Where Bush and Cheney were seen as power-mad war-mongerers, Obama is seen as edgy but shrewd and cagey.

And dig this paragraph regarding his failure to close Gitmo:

It was not only Mr. Obama’s distaste for legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the president seemed to have “a sense that if he sketches a vision, it will happen — without his really having thought through the mechanism by which it will happen.”

That pretty much sums things up, now, doesn't it?

And not being able to close Gitmo has perhaps driven lethal drone policy:

Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.”

We've suspected all along that the President doesn't want the hassle of actually capturing suspected terrorists and interrogating them and would just rather wack them instead.

Here's Ann Althouse on the matter:

Is there really a paradox here? He has chosen not to close Guantanamo, but to make it a low-profile political issue by never sending anyone there, and to build his reputation as tough on terrorism by regularly blowing somebody away. The careful "moral calculation" in the individual cases isn't reexamining the general policy; it's about the risks of screwups.

More rubble, less trouble.

The tone of the article is starting to grate on us now. Read 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.”

But he has found that war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.

Oh for cryin' out loud. Even any implicit criticism of the President is pawned off on an abstraction related to the man.

We're running long so we'll try to wrap this up with some closing thoughts. The article touts Obama's professorial and lawyerly approach to the war on terror in order to preserve his principles but 3 years on, we are wondering just what his principles are. Remember, this is the man who wanted to try KSM in civilian court but when asked what would happen if KSM was actually acquitted, Obama assured us that, regardless, KSM would never see the light of freedom. Huh? I believe the term of art for that is "show trial".

Also, this is the same man who wants to confer the same legal rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens upon monsters like KSM but signed into law last November provisions that would give him the power to indefinetely detain U.S. citizens without cause and also the power to kill U.S. citizens overseas without traditionally recognized due process. How one goes about squaring these circles is beyond our comprehension.

While we do appreciate that the President realizes combating terrorism on a global scale is not for the dainty or meek of heart (somewhere, Dick Cheney is smiling and/or having a bemused chuckle), there are some glaring inconsistencies with respect to policy that lead us to believe that the President is playing politics with his tactics just as much as anything else.



Doo Doo Econ said...

How much does a NYT CYA fluff peice cost these days?

Dean said...

Still free for this reader. ;)