The Obama Diet

The Obama Diet
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In the wake of my recent Obama-bashing, I reckon I should note that I was actually quite impressed by the President’s much ballyhooed May 23 speech on the future of the War on Terror. The video is about an hour long, and I highly recommend watching it. It has the air of one of the defining moments of his presidency.

Indeed, it was very much the President at his best. Thoughtful, intellectual, and most of all aware. Aware of the arguments of his critics on both the left and right, aware that many feel the trademarks of his approach to national security — drone strikes and targeted killings, even against American citizens — go too far, while other efforts — such as his famously bungled attempts to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay — don’t go far enough.

Much scorn has been heaped on the “Code Pink” protester that somehow managed to repeatedly interrupt Obama’s speech with long anti-war monologues, but in some ways she was a fitting symbol of the entire event. Smiling politely, Obama clearly found her boring and shrill, yet with every outburst, he cautioned his audience to take her seriously, and not be overly dismissive. Because it was critics like her whom he was at least partially seeking to rebuke — at times through an almost Socratic dialogue.

Those Mideast civilians killed by American power are not mere collateral damage, he said, but real human beings whose deaths “will haunt us as long as we live.” Which is why he’s turned to drones — the technology with the best track record of preventing them, not to mention the long-term perils associated with traditional tactics of invasion and occupation.

“Remember,” he added, “the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.” In other words, the military technique that’s become most synonymous with American militaristic excess is actually its most feasible alternative.

When it comes to targeting American citizens committing terror abroad, the President similarly sought to “dismiss some of the more outlandish claims” and repeated that “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process,” while also affirming that in moments of imminent danger, one’s “citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”

But beyond such unapologetic defenses of first-strike principles, it was really quite a liberal speech, at least in the sense it attempted to portray the war-weary policies of the Obama White House as distinct, and indeed, contrary to the war-happy eight years of the Bush administration.

The importance of addressing the sociological root causes of terror loomed large, for example. (Any comprehensive anti-terror strategy must address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism,” namely “poverty and sectarian hatred”). And there was even a call for increased foreign aide (“fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”)

At other times, the President veered into existential questions about the entire conceit of the War on Terror itself.

“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root,” he warned, nor will “every collection of thugs that labels themselves ‘al Qaeda’ pose a credible threat to the United States.” Likewise, “in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

To that end, he concluded, while “our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations” must continue, “this war, like all wars, must end.” That, in turn, will require “efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal,” the quintessential legislative piece of the post-9/11 world order known as AUMF, or the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, that entrusts the executive branch with “all necessary and appropriate” powers to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”

It was that statement that made his speech one for the history books. Overturn AUMF and you’ve basically concluded the war on global jihad, or at the very least eliminated the legal legitimacy justifying everything from housing prisoners in Gitmo to bombings shacks in Yemen. It was an admission that the war Americans — and the world — have to come to accept as inevitable and permanent need not be. It was leadership.

Not everything the President said was brilliant or wise, of course. The bit about root causes and poverty was particularly naive, since the purported links between financial indigence and violent extremism have been widely discredited by numerous terrorism experts.

It’s similarly a deeply open question as to whether or not dissolving the AUMF or otherwise formally ending the terror war would really alter much of the overzealous security state that Obama purports to find so troubling. Henrik Hertzberg wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker recently about the sheer size and magnitude of the post-9/11 anti-terror establishment — “more than three thousand government organizations and associated private companies working on counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, in ten thousand locations” with spending budgets in the billions. Ratcheting back any of that — which is to say, slimming down the bloated bureaucratic systems that manage the “systematic efforts” the President spoke of — could make closing Gitmo look like a breeze — which is probably why the topic didn’t come up.

Still, for those of us who’ve been justifiably skeptical over the last few years of Obama’s lead-from-behind management style, and a foreign policy that often appeared as unaccountable and unprincipled as it did arbitrary and disinterested, last month’s speech serves as a reminder there remains at least one realm in which — for better or worse — the President clearly knows what he’s doing.

Or at least knows why he’s doing.


  1. @RicardoB

    This has refreshingly been your least cynical in a long while.

  2. David L

    I think (and wholeheartedly hope) that you are right about this speech being a major highlight of Obama's presidency. It's nice to see some purpose behind Obama's leading from the middle strategy and that most importantly, there is a thinking leader behind all the reputation and notoriety.

    I do hope this is not a last gasp of the man's idealism and that we will see some real results after this speech. The greatest outcome would be the repeal of the AUMF; while difficult, you could see some real bipartisan consensus if it's done right.

  3. Jake_Ackers

    If he means business it would allow Rand Paul to take the head on it. Massive clear shift in foreign policy there but won't because he doesn't want Rand Paul to gain steam. However, frankly as long as Rand Paul is against that 1 point in the Civil Rights Act, Rand Paul is done nationally.

  4. @SideshowJon36

    Heh, Code Pink was a fitting symbol of the entire event indeed. Almost as if she was purposely placed there.

  5. Kento

    Nothing happens organically, does it?

  6. @SideshowJon36

    Nope. Not when President Teleprompter has an impromptu line for her presence.

  7. sethradio

    Hehe, Mr. Limbaugh speculated about the same. Frankly I think it's true.

  8. @SideshowJon36

    Aaand, for the last month, he's been harvesting EVERY call made on a Verizon cell phone. So if he's no longer a believer in the War on Terror, why's he monitoring our calls?

  9. Taylor

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Covering his behind. Because in the real world he is still the President and has a job to do. Idealism is a green pasture that must be walked to through the mudfields of reality.

  11. Can't Log In

    So… the ends justify the means…

  12. Jake_Ackers

    What will the people do if a terrorist attacks occurs and we find out the President had the means to stop it but didn't because of idealism?

  13. Thom

    Oh come on JJ, we all know you were that lady that was heckling him.

  14. @tominkorea

    I like this particular comic. You could swap Michelle Obama in place of Barack Obama and have pretty much the same comic, although 'War' would have to be replaced with 'American Public'

  15. Colin Minich

    And the most depressing thing about all this is just how right you are. But of course the "gub'mint" can't tell people how to eat or look after their health/welfare. That's socialism and discrimination against fat people, so sayeth the blog gods and tumblr. Of course it also hurts that food companies have a stranglehold on half of society…

  16. Jake_Ackers

    If we just stopped subsidizing corn and stopped placing tariffs on sugar cane, most of Americans would stop being fact cause of HFCS. However, both the Dems and Reps want the heartland vote so we get these half baked policies. No pun intended.

  17. Golgot

    I thought that libertarians were supposed to be big advocates for personal responsibility? But no, the government is what makes people fat, not their own gorging.

  18. Jake_Ackers

    Yes and how is subsidizing corn and taxing sugar cane libertarian? All food in the US has HFCS. Well most foods do. The corn lobby is monopolizing the sugar market with the aid of big government. It's anti-libertarian.

  19. Golgot

    The policy is, sure. But there's also the option of not stuffing your face so that you won't become an obese blimp.

  20. Jake_Ackers

    Overall yes I agree with you. However, the gov't is talking out of both sides of their mouth. People have to eat healthy sure. But if the gov't really cared about obesity they wouldn't have HFCS.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    I can understand if he genuinely wanted to change policies as a result of a shift in how the War on Terror is playing out. However, he hasn't created a new foreign policy to meet the new demands. Either the foreign policy stage changed and he is late to it. Or it hasn't and he is changing for what? My biggest concern is this just seems arbitrary, like he is trying to change something so said he did. Trying not to go out as a Bush-light but rather the Obama he promised. If he sees our foreign policy really changing I hope he follows with a genuine change in tactics and policy. Like the "overseer" foreign policy.

    I hope this speech leads to some real well structured policy. He has Kerry and Hagel ,two individuals that can be the Fosters and Kissingers of our era. I hope he achieves it. Wish he realized it sooner especially since I believe t was JJ that mentioned with the death of Osama we began a post 9/11 era.

    Now with situations like Benghazi we know we are in a new era. I hope his policies reflect that more so than the typical putting terrorists on trial in NYC and closing Gitmo. But rather policies that echo just complex thoughtful approaches reflective of an era like "containment" and "domino theory" or "brinksmanship". Not saying I agree with those policies but rather how they came into being. They were structured due to an experienced thought process and draw from Washington like consensus shaped from poll numbers and special interests.

    All in all, for the sake of our country. I'll reserve judgement until his next major foreign policy step. I'm hopeful although cautious.

  22. HeartRight

    Thank you for reminding me why I like President Obama.
    A mission-oriented man who applies cant only as a well-thought ouf afterthought rather than as guiding principle. And the opposite of his opponents, who treat policy as merely a side-effect of cant.
    Obama is applying the no-nonsense idea to Liberalism, and good for him.