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Jul 19, 2012

Obama’s Killing Problem -- Or Ours?


Predator drone firing a missile. Credit: Wikipedia

Esquire magazine has just brought out their new Fall Fashion Preview issue, and they somehow thought it made sense to include an article on “Obama’s Killing Problem.” You can see that title featured on the cover, just above “29 Reasons to Watch the Olympics.”

Obama’s problem, if I understand author Tom Junod right, is that by relying so heavily on drones meting out targeted assassinations, he’s changing the face of war in ways neither he nor anyone else can predict. Whatever the U.S. does, the rest of the world is bound to follow, and those drones will probably some day come back to haunt us.

This was also a major theme in American media in the first days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: We are now vulnerable, too. It was true then, and it’s true now.

But is this, as Junod claims, Obama’s problem? (He underscores the claim by writing his whole long article as a letter addressed to the president.) If John McCain were president, would he be less likely to use the drone technology that the Pentagon has made available to any resident of the White House? Or is any president almost inevitably seduced by the technological imperative?

The best historical accounts I’ve read of the summer of 1945 suggest that neither Harry Truman nor most of those in his inner circle ever seriously considered not using the Bomb. It was so “technically sweet,” as Robert Oppenheimer famously said. Its lure was irresistible. Why should drones be any different?

There’s certainly more to Obama’s reliance on drones than the siren call of technology. It’s just possible that he hates to kill anyone but has made a cool political calculation: The only way to preserve health care reform and have any chance of promoting his other domestic policies is to neutralize the predictable attacks from the right that he’s “soft” on national security. And he's got to give the Pentagon something in return for ordering so many troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It seems more likely, though, that he’s driven as much or more by philosophy than by politics. By his own account he’s been, since his college days, a devoted fan of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr. He even used his Nobel prize speech -- the PEACE prize speech -- to give the world a lesson in the same watered-down version of Niebuhr 101 that shaped U.S. policy in the days of Truman, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan: Evil is out there, waiting to destroy us unless we destroy it first. And since we’re all sinners, it’s inevitable that even the best of us will fight evil with some of evil’s own means.

This doesn’t absolve Obama of responsibility for the lethal choices he has made. He has blood on his hands. As a Niebuhrian he had to expect that from the day he first stepped into the Oval Office.

But it does raise some disturbing questions: Can we, the people, expect anything different as long as we remain so enamored with “cool” technology, so enmeshed in Niebuhrian assumptions about evil and original sin, and so ready to fuse the two in our conversations about America’s role in the world? If we allow that cultural pattern to remain dominant, shouldn’t we expect whomever we choose as president to embrace it too, and act upon it? Isn’t that the way democracy is supposed to work?

These questions, and others that Junod’s article raises, are a huge can of worms. I just wanted to lift the lid a tiny bit and take a quick peek inside. No doubt I’ll be looking more deeply into it in the future. For now, it’s enough to note that Obama’s drone-driven policies bring together two old and familiar strands of American mythology, strands that we are likely to find wrapped around any American president. If those policies are problematic -- and I’d say that’s an understatement -- then it’s our problem as much as, or more than, Obama’s. 

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