Does Obama want to be remembered as “Barack, bringer of drones”?

I’ve been writing about Obama’s drone and national security speech lately, and also gathering takes on it from other commenters. I showed Jon Stewart’s commentary here. I’d like to look next at the commentary from Chris Hayes’ show and that of some of his guests.

I’ll say to start that this is an important speech, but not perhaps in the way that Obama intended it. And I’m still left with that Möbius strip aftertaste, the feeling that this speech folds back on itself in a “stop me before I kill again” but “here’s why I’m doing it” way. I’m frankly both fascinated and creeped out by it. (The “creeped out” aspect was mainly discussed here.)

Let’s look now at a few segments from a Chris Hayes show that was mostly devoted to this speech and the protester who interrupted it. (These are selections, and not in order of broadcast.)

First, this discussion with Spencer Ackerman, Howard Fineman (who makes some excellent points) and Rep. Keith Ellison. Watch first, then some thoughts:

Ackerman (at 1:46) catches the cognative dissonance in the speech, what I’ve been calling its Möbius strip aspect, (all emphasis mine):

“In some ways it’s two speeches. One was a fascinating speech where he outlines that the war has to end, and the other is a frustrating speech where he doesn’t quite take the implications of what he’s saying into the proposal stage.”

In other words, the fascinating part is the words, the self-declared aspiration; the frustrating part is the … deeds, which he’s rather vague about. Words and deeds, what we’ve always noticed about Obama as not matching up.

And Fineman adds at 4:02:

“On a functional level, clearing away some of the grand thematics here, he gave a pretty spirited defense of the drone program.”

Back to deeds, what he’s doing now. And it us a vigorous defense — click here for the transcript and start reading at the phrase “Moreover, America’s actions are legal.” Obama wraps himself in phrases like “a just war – a war waged proportionally” and “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” — by which he means the executive branch establishing oversight over the executive branch. Not your daddy’s American Constitution — or your Founders’.

Fineman continues:

“I think he also defended, though not as fulsomely, domestic surveillance. … Within this sort of aspirational desire to get rid of this term about the “global war on terror” and maybe give back power, he used the term “ultimately.” He didn’t say immediately. Don’t expect to see a bill tomorrow to get rid of all that power he’s got.”

An interesting discussion.

Now Hayes in a brief segment on how the president defends the drone program while acknowledging that there are problems with it. He ends by asking the question — that’s what he says, but how will he act?

Note the mismatch in the president’s comparison of Al-Awlaki to a sniper with a gun (1:11). At most, Al-Awlaki was accused of actively conspiring. That’s a far cry in urgency and immediacy from actually shooting at people from a tower.

Mr. Obama, I’m going to call that one disingenuous — partly because it’s just a false comparison, and partly because the difference between the two cases is likely to be missed by most people (which is often the point of a disingenuous argument, if you want it to “fly”). Hayes appears to miss the distinction, for example.

Hayes ends by tying the drone program to Obama’s enduring legacy — an astute observation — and wonders, given Obama’s fine words (my phrase), how in the future Obama “actually acts.” As indicated above, the right question.

Finally, this conversation with Hina Shamsi of the ACLU and Joshua Foust (ex-DIA). The entire clip is here. I want to focus on just a brief segment, something Ms. Shamsi said and Froust agreed with. Listen:

Hina Shamsi (at 1:25) has a great answer to the question “Why is the drone solution not a good midway answer to either doing nothing or invading?” She makes two very concise points, one about capture as an alternative (it’s underused, or not used at all), and the other, that the drone program is “absolutely hated in the countries where it is being carried out.”

It’s hard to come to grips with that last point from the comfort of your chair — without putting yourself in the shoes of those who constantly watch the skies in fear of soulless, pilotless American planes. If a foreign nation sent a drone to kill someone in your neighbor’s house — in Albuquerque, say, or a Cleveland suburb — and your daughter were visiting at the time, and died … what would be the odds you’d immediately think of revenge?

I’d put those odds at just below 100%, assuming you still had a pulse and weren’t blown up yourself. After all, did not the invasion of Iraq ride a national tidal wave of revenge for piloted attacks against New York and Washington,  in other words, “9/11”?

Interestingly, Joshua Foust, the second guest, adds that the program Obama is describing as his future path is what’s actually happening now in Yemen, and he adds that this program is “generating these failures that Hina is talking about.” In other words, what he says he wants to do, he’s already doing, and it’s already failing.

Bottom line

We’ve now presented a number of takes on this speech — my own, where I doubt the president’s sincerity and see a pivot back to his base as the Republican scandal machine gears up (shades of Clinton, whose plan to privatize Social Security was short-circuited by a certain blue dress); Jon Stewart’s, who also seems to doubt Obama’s sincerity; and Chris Hayes and his guests, above, who more politely but consistently point to the differences between Obama’s words and his deeds.

What drove this speech? I point to Obama’s need to re-please his base during scandal season. Hayes points to the legacy issue, that drone kills are coming to define him in a lasting and major way. Does Obama want to be remembered as “Barack, Bringer of Drones”? Apparently not, though he has sometimes seemed to revel in it, as below:

See what I mean? “Boys, I have two words for you — predator drones.” Incipient second thoughts? A touch of conscience? Or reveling in the power to kill? I hear only one of those three in that “joke” — and am appalled at the “you and me, bro” laughter in the room. Some days I hope there’s a hell.

Is this speech a scandal pivot, a bit of legacy spin, or something more sincere? All three could be correct; or none of them. I’ve brought a fair amount of data in the last few days; feel free to decide for yourself. And happy Memorial Day. Is there better time to course-correct on national security overreach? Not if a course correction is needed.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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