Barack Obama gave a carefully staged speech, whose content was appropriate to its setting in the National Archives Museum, before a copy of the Constitution. A friendly audience of military and civilian judicial personnel, and representatives of organizations that work in behalf of civil liberties applauded on several occasions.
The subject was Guantanomo and other offenses to the traditions he has admired as law professor, candidate and president. .
The speech was nuanced. While four-square against torture, the president conceded that not all the prisoners could be released, or tried. Some would not be accepted by other countries. Some indicated they would return to terror. Some must be held as prisoners of war, even though they fought for no recognized army in no war that had been declared. When making difficult decisions, President Obama would insist on the primacy of law, and careful deliberation by representatives of different branches of government. He opposed any system where one individual would determine another's future, without the balance of additional views.
The speech had its moments of elegant balance and a recognition of subtle difficulties. However, it was long and repetitious. Obama used the term "values" 15 times, "Constitution" 10 times, and "rule of law" 8 times.
The speech also included some of the fluff that Obama uses to link himself to high sounding values. Referring to the prized documents of American history that were close to his platform, he said, "My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered."
His father also married Ann Dunham without telling her of a wife and children he did not bring to American shores, and then left when Barack was a year old. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_Sr.
Anyone daring to grade such a successful politician might give him an "A" if judged in the context of a seminar on law or ethics, but a lower grade in the context of intelligence gathering and war. The most prominent fault was his emphasis on clean intelligence. The president said experts agreed that waterboarding was not successful in extracting useful information. He did not cover other techniques, perhaps none of them pretty, but arguably less sadistic than those used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. With training and supervision, carrots as well as sticks, interrogators obtain information from individuals who do not give it willingly.
The president stressed that torture was more likely to help terrorists recruit additional fighters against America than provide useful information. He yearned for the day when people around the globe would no longer hate his country, but again admire the values that he said it promotes. He repeated that torture violated those values, but did not talk about other elements of warfare that also breed hatred, like the bombing of wedding parties and other civilian sites that result from poor intelligence or marksmanship.
Can a war proceed without ugliness? And is it appropriate to rail so strongly about one aspect of violence while ignoring others? Will stopping the practices photographed at Abu Ghraib, closing Guantanamo, and releasing some of the prisoners improve the American image while Americans and their allies continue to kill civilians, even unintentionally? War is not judged like an academic seminar or a judicial proceeding. Collateral damage is unfortunate, but part of the scene. So is death of one's own forces, due to the enemy's efforts, as well as by unintentional friendly fire, and accidents resulting from intense pressure and dangerous equipment. It is not unusual for 30-50 percent of an army's casualties to result from something other than the enemy's actions.
Glaring offenses against humane values should be targeted by policy, as well as by intensive training, dedicated supervision, and oversight by civilians commited to their task. It does not help when poorly educated and motivated individuals turn to the military as a last resort, officers wave criteria meant to assure quality recruits under the pressure of increasing their intake, commanders show greater concern for getting along and reaching retirement than enforcing the rules and careful judgment, and politicians charged with oversight avoid controversy.
Under the best of conditions, soldiers are not likely to be priests or professors, and far from saints. Their training includes more lessons about killing than protecting the innocent. The frenzied activity of an army in action engenders panic more than care. If a leader wants a clean war, it is best to avoid conflict. Especially when sending an army to places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, where clean fighting is not part of the enemy's code, a leader must contend with dirty hands as well as lofty speeches.
Within a week of his speech at the National Archives Museum, President Obama responded to North Korea's latest test of a nuclear device. He said that it was unacceptable, and that North Korea faced increased isolation. The North Korean government has already indicated that it cares little about isolation. Iran also heard Obama's comments. Would his condemnation, and threat of greater condemnation move either North Korea or Iran? He may have more success with Guantanamo.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science