By Luke Brinker
We first learned a year and a half ago that the Obama administration had targeted American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for killing. The news sparked heated debate about whether it was appropriate for the government to kill an American citizen without benefit of due process. To be sure, Awlaki preached fanatical Islam and wanted no part of life in his native country. He had committed treason, if not forsaken his American identity altogether. (Of course, while evidence of Awlaki’s treason was unimpeachable, he was never convicted of it in a court of law.)
Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer raised compelling concerns Awlaki’s killing in Yemen Friday. Greenwald decried the denial of constitutional rights to an American citizen, while Serwer argued that the precedent set by the Awlaki killing is a troubling one. “The question,” Serwer wrote, “is not whether or not you trust that President Obama made the right decision here. It’s whether or not you trust him, and all future presidents, to do so – and to do so in complete secrecy.” Would liberals lauding Obama’s targeted killing of Awlaki be so quick to give President Rick Perry such power? Would the liberal reaction have been more uniformly negative if the directive to kill Awlaki had been issued by President Bush? These are questions that liberal defenders of Obama’s move must grapple with.
Meanwhile, critics of Obama’s decision need to be careful about casting sweeping judgments on the president and his administration. I’m still wrestling with the implications of Friday’s drone strike. But I couldn’t help but recall the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Vital Center, a 1949 manifesto for anti-Communist liberalism. Taking on opponents of the Truman administration’s Cold War policy, Schlesinger wrote:
The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility – a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.
Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.
But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald’s phrase, to accomplish “in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality.” Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.
Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night’s rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.
Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.
The world is a better place without Anwar al-Awlaki. While my fellow lefties and I may quarrel with the means by which he was killed, it’s easy to pass such judgment when one doesn’t hold the reins of power. At the same time, responsible citizens of a democracy should be wary of blind trust in their elected officials.
This is an issue on which it’s hard to formulate a bumper sticker-friendly stance.