In his inaugural address, Barack Obama announced that change had come also to the moral content of our national security policy.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
We will have a moral foreign policy, and we will fight the War on Terror morally. We will respect the rights of our enemies, even as they conspire and fight to destroy the regime that guarantees us ours. We will respect their rights in the same way that we respect the rights of our own citizens.
This is the way Jimmy Carter began his (one term) presidency, making concern for human rights the organizing principle behind his foreign policy. Twenty-eight years after he left office, we are still dealing with the deadly consequences of his naive moralism.
After taking office, President Obama wasted no time asserting the enlightened moral perspective of his approach to foreign policy in contradistinction to that of his notoriously diabolical predecessor. In "Obama Made a Rash Decision on Gitmo" (WSJ, Jan. 29, 2009), former Bush Justice Department official John Yoo tells us, "During his first week as commander in chief, President Barack Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and terminated the CIA's special authority to interrogate terrorists." He did this "without a meeting of his full national security staff, and without a legal review of all the policy options available to meet the threats facing our country."
On the basis of the new President's halt to all military commission trials, Yoo surmises that enemy combatants and al Qaeda operatives such as Ali Saleh al-Marri will soon be tried in civilian courts under ordinary criminal law. Such trials would have to include the requirement that prisoners be read their Miranda rights when they are captured, that they have the right to counsel, that they have the right to remain silent, that their counsel have access to all the intelligence on their clients and information on how it was obtained, and of course that they be treated nicely at all times.
It is naïve to say, as Mr. Obama did in his inaugural speech, that we can "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." That high-flying rhetoric means that we must give al Qaeda -- a hardened enemy committed to our destruction -- the same rights as garden-variety criminals at the cost of losing critical intelligence about real, future threats.
In chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli says that, “if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.” One does not have to accept Machiavelli's moral universe to understand that you cannot fight a war the way you fight domestic crime, and that a President cannot be faithful to his oath of office if he is determined to treat captured foreign terrorists who are concealing life-saving information the same way he treats the citizens he is sworn to protect. Every President either knows this, learns this, or brings disaster upon the country.
Update: Dorothy Rabinowitz follows up on Yoo's article with her own critique of the President's recent national security endangering measures in light of various naive remarks in "his grim inaugural address" and his pronouncements during the campaign. "Obama's Moralizing Tone May Not Wear Well," WSJ, Feb. 2, 2009. This essay is full of insight and fine polemic.
To hear Mr. Obama speak now on matters like the national defense is to recognize that the leader now in the White House is in every respect the person he seemed on the campaign trail: a man of immense moral certitude, prone to an abstract idealism, and pronouncements that range between the rational and the otherworldly. ... Still, there is no reason to think that his views on security issues and Guantanamo and interrogations, his tendency to minimize the central importance of armed might, are not deeply rooted. They are clearly core beliefs. And that, along with those trumpeting declarations to the world that new leadership had now come to the United States, that we were now a nation worthy of the world's trust -- those speeches suggesting that after years of darkness America had now been rescued, just barely, from the abyss -- will be in the end this president's Achilles' heel. Those are not, Mr. Obama may discover, tones that wear well in the course of a presidency.
On the same page in today's Wall Street Journal, two economists, one from UPenn and the other from UCLA, warn that the wrong government intervention can make a major economic downturn far worse than it would be otherewise ("How Government Prolonged the Depression").
Our research indicates that New Deal labor and industrial policies prolonged the Depression by seven years. ... The main lesson we have learned from the New Deal is that wholesale government intervention can -- and does -- deliver the most unintended of consequences. This was true in the 1930s, when artificially high wages and prices kept us depressed for more than a decade, it was true in the 1970s when price controls were used to combat inflation but just produced shortages. It is true today, when poorly designed regulation produced a banking system that took on too much risk.
Between the President's economic initiatives and his national security innovations, he is already looking like the worst of FDR and Jimmy Carter. That is not a recipe for a great Presidency.