Obama’s real legacy is clinching liberal support for authoritarian policies

The Obama administration’s policy of extrajudicial killing (a.k.a. the drone program) is a program so brutal and authoritarian it has been endorsed by virtually every prominent neoconservative, from Dick Cheney to Bill Kristol to John Bolton. This week, the week of Assassination Czar” John Brennan‘s CIA confirmation hearing and the “leaking” of an internal Justice Department memo, viewers of Ed Schultz’s MSNBC show (read: Democrats) polled 78% in favor of the “policy of targeted killing of American citizens”. It’s worth taking some time to look at what’s actually in the memo, why it prompted a rare mention of targeted killing on the preferred propaganda outlet of the Democratic cheerleading-industrial complex, and why liberals now overwhelmingly support policies that used to be controversial and right-wing.

To start, it’s the first outline we’ve seen of the administration’s argument why it’s constitutional to target US citizens for execution without so much as charging them with a crime. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out at the Guardian, this is something the assassination program has been doing since 2010. But Greenwald also calls attention to what I think is new, and most radical, about the administration’s “reasoning” here. The basic thrust of the memo is this: The Obama administration claims the right to execute, without due process of law, anyone (including US citizens) it suspects of involvement in an “imminent” attack against the United States. But wait a second: “[T]he memo expressly states that it is inventing ‘a broader concept of imminence’ than is typically used in domestic law. Specifically, the president’s assassination power does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future’.” [Emphasis in the original]

Consider that for a moment. Yes, it’s hardly news that Obama, Brennan, and Attorney General Eric Holder operate as if “due process” doesn’t necessarily mean “judicial process”, and can instead be satisfied by the internal deliberations of Obama and his lackeys. But what the administration says in this excerpt is, in reality, even more radical. In effect, it claims that the US government does not need to have a shred of evidence that someone is a threat to national security in order to execute them on the grounds that they’re a threat to national security. In the context of the administration’s definition of “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone” and increasing use of general patterns of behavior (the “disposition matrix”) to choose the locations of drone strikes, the intent of the administration’s legal rationale is clear: to establish a legal basis for secretive and deliberately indiscriminate killing. How many in the media and political class, how many of our friends and community members, recognize this for the extremist power grab that it is? Had Bush attempted it, Democrats and their “liberal base” would surely have pretended to find it outrageous. When a GOP President abuses the powers Obama made legal, bipartisan, and permanent, perhaps they will again.

Another point I think bears repeating is that this is, frankly, everyone’s problem. It’s hard to deny that there’s a deep, historical tendency towards racism and national chauvinism in US culture and politics. How responsible are we for refusing to connect the dots? Of course, it’s true that the corporate class made sure the phenomenon of Barack Obama was the answer to their prayers after the disastrous and divisive Bush administration. Despite Obama’s own insistence that he’s a Republican, liberals in the corporate media (insert caveat about “Up with Chris Hayes”) have successfully pushed an image of the President as a progressive but pragmatic constitutional lawyer who you could really have a beer with after your Urdu Poetry class.

And it’s the elite that won big again with the immense popularity of extrajudicial killing, and it’s their remote-controlled, absurdly globalized War on Terror that’s killing thousands whose names almost no Americans will ever know. But are liberals and progressives less likely to be outraged, to take to the streets in protest, to hold our elected officials accountable, because the victims of St. Barack’s violence aren’t white children in Sandy Hook for whom he cries on TV, but Pakistanis, Afghans, Yemenis, and Somalis (hundreds of them children and a majority of them civilians)?

I think the answer has to be yes. Our nationalism runs deep, pervading even what passes for criticism of our government’s most barbaric policies. The few Senators who questioned Obama’s Assassination Czar at his farcical confirmation hearing seemed mostly worried about targeting US citizens and transparency. It simply goes without saying that the Hellfire missiles that target even the rescuers and funerals of their victims in Asia and Africa are more deserving of our outrage if they could be used to incinerate us. It’s not a coincidence that critical voices regularly look past the policy’s blatant violation of basic human rights and international law to focus almost exclusively on the unconstitutionality of executing US citizens in this way. Don’t forget: Empire wears many faces. Sometimes it looks like Rachel Maddow. Sometimes it’s called “Zero Dark Thirty” and gets exclusive access to the CIA and makes boatloads of money off of chest-thumping propaganda.

To be clear: Targeted killing’s unconstitutionality should be fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. That’s a battle that must be (and is being) fought. When you’re arguing that extrajudicial assassinations are in clear violation of the US Constitution, specifying “US citizens” is necessary. But if it’s also an issue of the mass murder of civilians and “terror suspects” far from any war zone – considered war crimes by international law – then critics of the assassination program have to be clear about what’s really objectionable about the policy. Any “critique” of targeted killing that views the execution of Americans as a bigger problem than signature strikes – in which the administration does not have to know who it is targeting before ordering an attack – is morally bankrupt and has to be rejected as such.

But even pure self-interest demands that Americans view the routine killing of civilians in the so-called Muslim world as a threat. Contrary to conventional wisdom about terrorists “hating us for our freedoms”, terrorism against the US and its client states is the product of an effect called “blowback“. Blowback is the principle of, as Cornel West puts it, “the chickens coming home to roost” for a country whose M.O. includes the slaughter of innocent people and propping up the repressive dictators that rule them. That people are far more likely to view as the enemy, and take up arms against, the entity that supports their tyrants and wipes out their families and homes is a point so obvious it needs no further elaboration. Yet, on this vital national security issue, so-called progressives in the media and political class are as silent now as they were during the election.

After Obama’s reelection, I wrote about our friends who insisted that liberals and the left vote for Obama, and then “push him”: “Do not let them forget their promise or rest on their laurels. Now begins the work of strategizing, theorizing, and building alternative institutions to counter the increasing assault of private capital on public goods. Now is the time, not just for strengthening local ties, but also for international solidarity – that means standing with those who suffer the worst of imperial violence, be it military, economic, or environmental.” Pretty words aside, the “lesser evil” has failed to indicate a “progressive” policy shift in his second term. And liberals, for the most part, would rather wring their hands at systemic injustice than talk about the role of Obama’s policies in perpetuating it. How can anyone realistically assess the obstacles to “progress” if you’d rather have a drink with the President than see him tried for war crimes in the Hague?

The fact is that alternative institutions are beyond our reach as long as we show such wildly unwarranted trust in the ones that, at best, take us for granted, and at worst, view a vocal left as the real enemy. The first step towards a concrete new vision is not to accept elite propaganda on its own, patently ridiculous terms.

Militarization of the border is not “immigration reform”. Austerity is not “entitlement reform”. School privatization is not “education reform”. The suffering of millions under draconian sanctions is not “diplomacy”. A 7-month bombing campaign ending in regime change is not a “humanitarian intervention”.

And Obama is not your friend.

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