I have now had time to read Tom Junod’s lengthy essay in Esquire to which Ritika linked the other day. Entitled “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” it combines the form of a reported essay with a different form–one I am unaccustomed to reading in the pages of glossy magazines: A lecture in the principal’s office. For one thing, it is written in the second person, addressed personally to President Obama, as though his teacher had just sent him to Mr. Junod, the very-feared principal, who sees it as his responsibility to make sure little Barack understands both his virtues and vices and how the two related and have produced a very bad thing for which he must now atone. It opens:
You are a good man. You are an honorable man. You are both president of the United States and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You are both the most powerful man in the world and an unimpeachably upstanding citizen. You place a large premium on being beyond reproach. You have become your own deliberative body, standing not so much by your decisions as by the process by which you make them. You are not only rational; you are a rationalist. You think everything through, as though it is within your power to find the point where what is moral meets what is necessary.
You love two things, your family and the law, and you have surrounded yourself with those who are similarly inclined. To make sure that you obey the law, you have hired lawyers prominent for accusing your predecessor of flouting it; to make sure that you don’t fall prey to the inevitable corruption of secrecy, you have hired lawyers on record for being committed to transparency. Unlike George W. Bush, you have never held yourself above the law by virtue of being commander in chief; indeed, you have spent part of your political capital trying to prove civilian justice adequate to our security needs. You prize both discipline and deliberation; you insist that those around you possess a personal integrity that matches their political ideals and your own; and it is out of these unlikely ingredients that you have created the Lethal Presidency.
You are a historic figure, Mr. President. You are not only the first African-American president; you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the United States throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy. You have authorized kill teams comprised of both soldiers from Special Forces and civilians from the CIA, and you have coordinated their efforts through the Departments of Justice and State. You have gradually withdrawn from the nation building required by “counterinsurgency” and poured resources into the covert operations that form the basis of “counter-terrorism.” More than any other president you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with “nighttime” raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Pakistan and other places where the United States has not committed troops, you are estimated to have killed at least two thousand by drone. You have formalized what is known as “the program,” and at the height of its activity it was reported to be launching drone strikes in Pakistan every three days. Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret. The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why; the American people — and for that matter, most of their representatives in Congress — have no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to know.
Though framed, in this breathless hyperventilating vein, as a broad article about Obama’s lethal strikes, the article is actually narrower. It is ultimately about the killing of Anwar Al Awlaki and his 16-year-old son. And it seems to have struck quite a chord in circles anxious about the drone war. Maybe I’m just the bad kid in school who dishes on the principal in the cafeteria to make little Barack feel better after getting yelled at by Mr. Junod and having had his parents called, but count me unimpressed.
I was pleased when your brother conveyed from you salaams to myself and was excited by hearing your profession. I pray that Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems, what procedures would travellers [sic] from the newly listed countries have to go through, what procedures would a person on a watch list have to go through?
Our highest priority is the US. Anything there, even if on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US? If that is not possible, then what ideas do you have that could be set up for the uk?
Junod does not treat Al Awlaki merely as a charismatic preacher who inspired others to violence, but he doesn’t emphasize his operational role either, and it is precisely that role that makes Obama’s decision to target him not only defensible legally but, at least in my judgment, morally appropriate. It seems to me that if one is going to lecture Obama at great length on the morality of his behavior and the precedent he is setting, one should at least describe in a fulsome fashion what he was responding to.
This point leads me to what I think is the central moral problem of the piece: the problem of alternatives. Junod seems to take for granted that an alternative existed to killing Al Awlaki: Not killing Al Awlaki. But he never spends any time exploring the moral, political, and strategic implications of the null hypothesis. Let us assume for a minute that the capture of Al Awlaki was, in fact, not feasible—since Attorney General Eric Holder has come very close to conceding that the Al Awlaki killing would be illegal if capture were a viable option:
an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
Assuming Al Awlaki met these conditions, even under a somewhat temporally relaxed understanding of imminence, would we really admire morally a president who declined the opportunity to act to protect the country? I would, as I have argued before, have no more moral admiration for such a person than I would for a police commander who declined a shot in a hostage situation when he knew that the citizen hostage taker was about to start killing hostages. Presidents cannot avoid the problem of alternatives. I’m not sure why we are so tolerant of morally preening journalists when they avoid the problem of alternatives in their evaluations of presidential action.
Two other brief comments, both involving the intergenerational dimensions of Junod’s argument. Call them the Problem of the Son and the Problem of the Father.
The Problem of the Father is that Junod relies a great deal on interviews with Anwar Al Awlaki’s father for the moral power of his piece. He has obtained the cooperation of the Al Awlaki family, and their anguish pervades the many pages he has penned. I feel for them. Really, I do. But let’s be honest, if bloodless, about it: Their feelings are utterly irrelevant to the question of how a president should behave.
Imagine for a moment that I became a terrorist. That would really suck for my dad. Like Nasser Al Awlaki, my father is a prominent guy–accomplished, articulate, capable of giving a compelling interview, and likely to give me a little more of the benefit of the doubt than, say, the president who might have to decide whether or not to take me out. But neither the lawfulness nor the moral appropriateness of the presidential action with respect to me would depend in any way on how my father felt. It would depend, rather, on factual questions about me: what I was doing, how solid the information was, what the alternative options for stopping me looked like. Spending a lot of time talking to Nasser Al Awlaki might give one great insight into character of the target, but it gives one zero insight into the decision-making of the president. It is moral noise when evaluating presidential action.
Then there’s the Problem of the Son: Junod spends a lot of time on the killing of Al Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman Al Awlaki, who was killed in a separate drone strike shortly after the one that killed his father. Maybe I’m being thick here, but I’m not sure I understand the relevance. Junod concedes that Abdurahman Al Awlaki was not the target of the strike that killed him, that he was collateral damage. And nobody denies that non-combatant civilians get killed in military operations. Nobody claims either that that fact is anything other than tragic and horrible. Nobody denies either the possibility that some of those civilians could turn out to be American citizens. And nobody denies either the possibility that one could turn out to be named Al Awlaki and closely related to another guy named Al Awlaki, who actually was a target of a different strike. So why is the point here especially interesting, except from a human interest point of view? The only relevant question, it seems to me, is whether the target in the strike that killed Al Awlaki’s son was a lawful one and whether the appropriate care was taken to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties. If these conditions were met, the question of who the collateral damage turned out to be says nothing–absolutely nothing–about the nature of the presidency.