There’s a lot I like in the emerging contours of President Obama’s National Security Strategy. The purpose-driven multilateralism. The recalibration of civilian and military tools of national security. The warnings against both overstretch and decline. This is the spark that I first saw in the Obama Doctrine in early 2008, and I like seeing Obama fan the spark into a flame.
But there’s another aspect to Obama’s West Point commencement address, in which he previews the themes that will be the centerpiece of his National Security Strategy, that’s more problematic. He has a remarkable ability to view al-Qaeda and the challenge it poses in context and exhort the country against hysteria, counterproductive overreaction and unnecessary compromise. But then he engages in — at the very least — unnecessary compromise. For instance:
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are small men on the wrong side of history. They lead no nation. They lead no religion. We need not give in to fear every time a terrorist tries to scare us. We should not discard our freedoms because extremists try to exploit them. We cannot succumb to division because others try to drive us apart. We are the United States of America.
If you could see me right now, you would see a New Yorker waving a miniature American flag and cueing up Springsteen’s “Promised Land.” The president continues, “Extremists want a war between America and Islam, but Muslims are part of our national life, including those who serve in our United States Army.” And I’m waving that flag so hard.
A fundamental part of our strategy for our security has to be America’s support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding. And we will promote these values above all by living them — through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it’s hard; even when we’re being attacked; even when we’re in the midst of war.
And this is what kills me, because it’s so apt a diagnosis and so foreign from what Obama’s presidency is actually pursuing. “Fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it’s hard” would cause Attorney General Holder to refuse to create a framework from indefinite detention without charge — perhaps the least American idea there is — rather than assenting to it under pressure from Sen. Graham. There would be no inexplicable expansions of exemptions within Miranda after a 53-hour law-enforcement manhunt immediately produces intelligence cooperation from an American citizen-turned-extremist. And there would most certainly be no assertions of the right to execute an American citizen without due process of law on mere suspicion of involvement with small men on the wrong side of history. Actually, come to think of it, that’s the least American idea there is.
There would be no embrace of the military commissions, and certainly no prosecution under them of someone who as a 15-year old allegedly threw a grenade that killed an American soldier — heinous, but clearly a traditional battlefield act — for a war crime. There would be no calculation that the path to closing down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay involves embracing the commissions and indefinite detention without charge. There would be no equivocation that the best venue for trying the men responsible for plunging us into this Constitutional dark age is the civilian courts that have proven so successful at dispensing internationally-recognized justice. And there would be no hectoring of the civil liberties community for being naive enough to believe that the Constitutional principles Obama espoused as a candidate — and, every now and then, in speeches like this — are indeed necessary and sufficient to guide us out of that dark age.
Instead, if it’s true that he will promote these values above all by living them, then he is simply not promoting them. I’ll leave it to you to determine if Obama is not promoting them at all or not promoting them as much as I’d like, as I try to be humble enough to remember there is a distinction there. But remember what the argument on offer here is from the president: American values are necessary sources of positive-sum international action, and the promotion of American values begins with our demonstrated fidelity to them. So we are depleting our own stated strength.
Some sunshine patriots wrap themselves in the flag. But it’s just as cynical to wrap yourself in the Constitution.