This week, U.S. officials announced that they had killed al Qaeda’s second-in-command with a drone strike. The news came soon after the New York Times published the fullest account to date of the process by which the United States selects lower-profile targets for drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. The most startling revelation was that President Obama personally supervises the “nomination” of potential targets and gives final approval for killing them.
The lengthy Times story isn’t based on a leak—it is clearly news that the White House wants the world to know. The reporters interviewed three dozen current and former Obama advisors to assemble their picture of the target-selection process. In his new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman notes that Obama’s presidential campaign “is painting a portrait of a steely commander who pursues the enemy without flinching.” Three days after the drones article, the Times ran an equally detailed article, again with obvious White House consent, about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran, reporting that “Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings . . . was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory.” This image of the president firmly in command of the drone campaign is precisely what the White House wishes to convey in the run-up to the election.
So why did the president put his hand on the helm? The Times reports:
Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.This image of a president schooled in just war theory is remarkable. At least one Catholic Web site has poured scorn on “the wise, judicious philosopher-king consulting Aquinas and Augustine before sending a drone missile on a ‘signature strike’ on a group of picnickers in Yemen or farmers in Pakistan.” (Perhaps the sarcasm is deserved—there have indeed been catastrophic mistakes in targeting—but Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al Qaeda second-in-command, was no picnicker or farmer.)
We of course have no idea how serious a student of just war theory the president is, but there is no reason to suspect that his aides are making it up. That entitles us to ask what the president may have taken from these two Christian writers and, more important, whether their arguments in fact support the morality of the president’s actions. What we find is a messy mix of insights and errors, by the saints as well as the president. The central themes of just war theory are easy to grasp: that war is a proper subject of moral judgment and that no leader should duck responsibility for making these judgments. Obama seems to understand that much. But today’s debate about drones centers on more specific questions about targeting, civilian deaths, and who should make the crucial decisions. On these issues Augustine and Aquinas offer scant guidance. Furthermore, the Times reports that the CIA uses dishonest rules for counting civilian casualties. If Obama acquiesces to such deceits, all the just war theory in the world will make no difference.
The verdict on Obama turns on the morality of targeted killings themselves. In my view, they are no different in principle from other wartime killings, and they have to be judged by the same standards of necessity and proportionality applied to warfare in general: sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. There are no simple answers.
Augustine and Aquinas, like all just war theorists, believe that some wars and tactics are morally permissible but others are not. This is the first, and far and away the most important, point that Obama would have taken from just war theory. Realists, by contrast, agree with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that in war “the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place” while “force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.” (Leviathan, ch. 13.) Michael Walzer begins Just and Unjust Wars, the greatest twentieth-century book on just war, with a chapter titled “Against ‘Realism’.” His point is that people do make moral judgments about war, and that “without them we would have no coherent way of talking about war.” In that sense, “realism” is quite unrealistic.
The desire to punish our enemies through war is never far below the surface.
A second fundamental tenet of Christian just war theory is that peace is the natural and desirable state for human beings and that the sole aim of just war is “a certain earthly peace.” (Augustine, City of God, XIV.4) Statecraft that regards war as nothing more than a gambit in the great game of geopolitics or a tool of national power is unjust and immoral. The Times article quotes National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s view that Obama is “a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States.” By contrast, just war theory is not comfortable with the use of force, and regards it as at best a necessary evil. As for the view that combativeness is part of human nature, like head-butting among rams, Augustine would concede it only because we are fallen, sinful creatures. In his view, “if the earthly city observes Christian principles, even its wars will be waged with the benevolent purpose that better provision might be made for the defeated to live harmoniously together in justice.” (Letter 138 to Marcellinus, ch. 2, sec. 14; translation slightly altered.)
At the same time, traditional just war theory is a long way from pacifism. One of Augustine’s most important works on just war theory is a letter to his friend Marcellinus, a Roman official in North Africa and a devout Christian. He aimed to persuade Marcellinus that the pacifism of some early Church Fathers, grounded in Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek, was a mistake. Just war theory may be about justice, but it is also very much about war, and it never says that all war is unjust. It limits violence, but it also licenses it.
The most important criterion of just war is possession of a just cause, the paradigmatic example being self-defense. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, there can be little doubt that the United States could morally use force in self-defense. There is a strong case that the U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is genuine self-defense, given AQAP’s relentless series of (fortunately thwarted) attacks against the American homeland—the underwear bomber, the printer-cartridge bombs, the attempt at a second underwear bombing in May with explosives designed to evade airline security. Even those who favor the use of law enforcement rather than military action in the struggle against al Qaeda accept that force employed to defend against terrorist attacks is justified when lesser measures don’t work.
Another condition of just war, emphasized by Aquinas, is “rightful authority.” Not just anyone can launch a war; only a legitimate ruler can. It follows that non-state actors such as al Qaeda by definition are unjust warriors. (Granted, by this criterion the same would be true of the American revolutionaries, and those who believe that freedom fighters can wage just struggles will reject the “rightful authority” criterion for its bias in favor of the status quo.) One of the most controversial aspects of the use of military commissions at the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities was treating mere membership in al Qaeda as an offense against the laws of war. In my view this treatment is a legal and moral mistake, but the “rightful authority” strand of just war theory supports it…
The Right Honourable Mr. Burke: Impassioned orator, eloquent statesman, esteemed writer- but who was Edmund Burke the man?
June 12, 2012
Everyone claims Edmund Burke as his patron saint, political forefather, lodestar and compass point, ancestral bulwark against the tide of whatever seething modern ill he despises. The right wing trumpets Burke, who excoriated the murderous rebellion in France; the left wing salutes Burke, who excoriated his imperial colleagues for their overweening and rapacious greed in India and America; Christians celebrate Burke, who considered religion a crucial and indispensable pillar of civic life; the Irish savor a native son who became, as Hazlitt noted, “the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons”; the English honor the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling.
But Edmund Burke the actual man is faded away—the man his wife called Ned, fond of vulgar puns and lewd jokes, an ample man, thin as a lad and then never again; the chatterbox “never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off,” as Samuel Johnson said (probably with a tinge of self-recognition); the man whose first schooling was in a ruined castle in rural Cork, because Catholics were forbidden education under imperial law; the man who lost one son early and the other too soon; the man who would launch into such furious and vituperative speech in Parliament that his friends would have to haul him down into his seat by his coattails; the man “quick to offend [but] ready to atone,” in his own words; the man whose one refuge from politics and creditors, friends and enemies, passions and plots, was a tiny “root-house,” as he called it, a mile from his heavily mortgaged estate house through the Buckinghamshire woods—a “tea-house,” as a young friend described the place, set amid “roots of trees, moss, and so forth, with a … little kitchen behind and an ice-house under it.”
Let us visit him there, late on a summer afternoon, the burble of hawfinch and warbler in the close walls of the woods, the keening of kite and hobby overhead. The tea is ready; he leans back in his battered chair, a gift from one of the men who work his farm; he runs a hand through his hair, bright red until the end of his days; he adjusts the spectacles he has worn since he was young; he says with a smile that at dusk he is due at the big house for dinner with his beloved Jane and their boy Richard and two or three esteemed guests from London; but for an hour shall we converse, shall we talk, shall we let loose our minds to ramble free, and ride ideas where they take us? “The roving flight of genius,” Hazlitt called Burke’s speech, “never [more] himself … but when … forgetful of the idle clamours of party, and of the little views of little men.”
For all his rise to political fame, and nearly to power, in the greatest imperial corridors of his time, he never forgot that his native land was essentially enslaved by the very government for which he labored with such skill and flair. On the January day he was born Éamon de Búrca, in the old tongue, in 1729, on Arran Quay on the River Liffey in Dublin, the English penal laws forbade Catholics from holding public office, marrying Protestants, owning weapons, serving in the military or as a lawyer or judge, voting, receiving public education of any sort or redress from arrest without cause by a representative of the king, purchasing land, inheriting land from Protestants, leasing land for more than 31 years, owning a horse worth more than five pounds, speaking their native Irish language, and building churches. (In the few cases where churches were allowed to be built, imperial law forbade the use of stone.) The subtlety of such laws, the devious genius! If you set out to destroy a culture, could you do better than that? A system of “vicious perfection,” wrote Burke many years later; “I must do it justice: it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts” for the purpose, as he elsewhere wrote, of making “three millions of people … enslaved, beggard, insulted, degraded.”
But the penal laws were not uniformly enforced, especially when a boy’s father was a noted Protestant attorney, and only his mother popish; and the boy, thought to be too delicate to endure the fetid mists and vapors of the muddy Liffey, was sent first to a Catholic “hedge school” in Cork, convened in the wreck of his mother’s family’s ancestral castle, and then to a Quaker school in County Kildare, where he shone in history and poetry, read the Bible morning, noon, and night, and was “ever the better man for it.” By 15 he had been accepted at Trinity College in Dublin. At 20 he was studying law in London and dreaming of America. At 30 he was married with one son living and the winter infant Christopher dead. At 35 he was the renowned tablemate of Johnson and Boswell, Goldsmith and Gibbon, Garrick and Joshua Reynolds; a newly elected member of Parliament; and, finally, a salaried man, as secretary to the prime minister. So strolls onto the stage the Edmund Burke of history, a stage he would not leave for 30 years, a stage that was perhaps essential to him, for when he left it, in 1794, he lived only three years more; but again let us glance not at Burke the politician but at Burke the man, that summer he retired.
On July 18, young Richard Burke, age 36, was elected to succeed his father, Edmund, as member of Parliament for the borough of Malton (in Yorkshire), the culmination of much dreaming and hard work by father and son. On August 2, Richard died, sinking back “into the arms of his parents,” as a friend reported. Jane Burke and her haggard husband buried their second son in the fields near their home. “[I]n several senses and to many purposes, I am dead,” wrote Burke soon after. And: “I am in a state of mind as near compleat despair as a man can be in.” And: “Mine is the face of a man marked by the hand of God.” Out of work, both sons dead, his nation losing an endless war against the despised French, his native Ireland roiling with violence and little less enslaved than it had been the day he was born, Burke spent many hours in his root-house, a mile through the patient woods from the grave of his son. “I have been obliged to go into the open air from time to time, to refresh myself,” he wrote to a friend, “and thus the time went away.” Imagine him there amid roots and moss, his red hair askew, his spectacles laid aside, his head in his hands, even the birds silent for a moment, as if in hushed prayer. He must have spent thousands of hours in that root-house, over his 30 years in Buckinghamshire; thousands of times he walked through the flittering light amid beech and rowan, ash and yew, alder and bramble; here and there a scuttle of badger, a startle of fox, a flutter of bats, a corncrake sprinting across the path, an otter slipping back into the muttering river; here and there perhaps he found thickets of mushrooms, and knelt to fill his pockets; during the day heard kite and hobby, kings of the air, lovely and savage; in the evening the first owls on their silent expeditions for dormice. So very many hours, a book in hand or jammed in pocket, a tin of tea, a song to sing, a prayer to chant; an hour or two to be alone for a man who otherwise hardly ever was. Who was he then, sipping tea in his root-house, attended only by the curious hawfinches in his mortgaged woods? Did he write his exquisite essays, make notes for speeches, write love letters to his sweet Jane, draw silly pictures for their boy Richard, dream of who their boy Christopher might have been? Did he still dream of the fresh green breast of the New World, and imagine himself a new man there? Or did he lean back, with his steaming tea, and stare for hours at the hobbies, the lark-falcons above, wondering how beings so brilliant and beautiful could be so attuned to blood, so creative in their violence?…
A powerful sense of innovation and possibility surrounded the February 2011 protests that pushed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from office. If the results of the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections last week are any guide, that sense has all but disappeared. The old guard is back, and the revolutionary youth and the populists are out. The two remaining candidates, Muhammad Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, represent the most hierarchical institutions in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. These institutions have been battling each other for more than half a century, and they won the first round not by finding creative ways to attract the center but by energizing their traditional bases.
Earlier this year, it seemed that things might turn out differently. One contender for power was the ad hoc youth coalition that pushed the revolution forward in January and February 2011. The young revolutionaries, including the Google executive Wael Ghoneim, shunned political hierarchy. Instead, they sought to establish a rhizomatic organization that stressed peer-to-peer communication. Disdainful of smoke-filled rooms and political intrigue, they asked supporters in May 2011 to submit questions via Facebook that they should ask the military (they got 850 suggestions), and they posted summaries of their meetings with the country’s top brass on the Internet. In a world of political transition, they were giving postmodern politics a try.
But as postmodern politicians they could not bargain with powerful interest groups in Egypt, including the military. Tahrir Square had been great theater, but when the stage lights switched off there was no way to keep the attention of the masses. In fact, the revolutionaries’ first defeat came more than a year ago in March 2011, when less than 25 percent of Egyptian voters joined them in opposing a slate of constitutional amendments meant to set the terms of Egyptian politics going forward. The group was defeated even more soundly in parliamentary elections last winter, when avowedly pro-revolutionary parties won just a handful of seats. Their disdain for formal leadership cost them influence; as one analyst put it in a private meeting, “It’s unclear if the revolutionary youth dislike politics or they’re just bad at it.”
So if Egypt wasn’t ready for postmodern politics, what about just plain modern politics — the kind one might find in any other country? Two candidates who bore that standard in the recent election were Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, an independent moderate Islamist, and Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition leader since the days of Anwar Sadat.
In the run-up to the elections, Abou el-Fatouh had assiduously courted a diverse coalition by, among other steps, employing a Marxist political adviser and a secular media expert and stressing the importance of citizenship and personal freedoms. In doing so, he managed to win the confidence of conservative Salafis and liberal secularists. He also seemed willing to have measured confrontations with the military. For example, he insisted that the budget for the armed forces be transparent and part of the overall national budget. He also argued that the military needed to restrict its role to defending the country. In part, what was so refreshing about Abou el-Fatouh was that he was a normal politician. After decades of politics based wholly on loyalty — to religion, region, or institution — Abou el-Fatouh was different. His speeches were both vague and charismatic. His style allowed diverse constituencies to project their own views onto him.
Meanwhile, longtime opposition leader Sabahi ran as an unabashed nostalgist who sought to return to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser and resurrect Egypt’s role as regional leader. Sabahi’s populist politics — his election slogan was “One of us” — resonated with tens of millions of Egypt’s poor. He called for boosting the minimum wage by more than 50 percent and for strengthening social welfare programs. In poor neighborhoods and villages, his posters were everywhere. His message also found favor among some revolutionaries looking to upend the status quo.
But, in the end, normal politics were not enough, either. In part, too many postmodern and modern candidates were competing for the same disaffected voters, diluting their power. Further, new candidates were relatively unskilled at get-out-the-vote efforts, so turnout favored the old guard. Now Egypt will return to the days of traditional patronage networks.
In a race between Mursi and Shafiq, the edge likely goes to Mursi, whose advantage is not so much personal charisma as the Muslim Brotherhood’s countrywide network of activists. He is likely to draw the totality of the Islamist vote — bringing conservative Salafis under his wing in addition to the modernist Muslim Brotherhood — along with revolutionaries and others who feel an urgent need for change.
Meanwhile, Shafiq enjoys support among Christians who fear an Islamist government, Egyptians yearning for normalcy after 15 months of tumult, and the clients of the old security state. He has the tacit support of many of the Gulf monarchies, the military, and others who seek to preserve as much as possible of Egypt’s Mubarak-era order. Yet his mere presence on the ballot incenses many of the revolutionaries. Much of the public fears that his thugs will wreak havoc before the election so as to boost the vote for the stability he claims to represent. Others worry that the military and intelligence organs of the government will steer the election results in his favor.
Many Egyptians seem disgusted by the choice and are likely to sit out the election. Turnout for the parliamentary elections was close to 60 percent, but in the first round of presidential polling, turnout was below 50 percent. If many of Abou el-Fatouh and Sabahi’s supporters stay home, as they threaten to do, turnout will be lower still. That would favor Mursi, whose well-oiled political machine excels at get-out-the-vote operations among his supporters. The Brotherhood faces strong opposition, it is true, but animus toward the ancien regime runs even deeper…
June 12, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.