I had an exchange with a facebook friend tonight about the momentous event of the killing of Osama bin Laden. This is surely a victory and a morale booster in what John McCain harkening back to cold war rhetoric called our “long twilight struggle.” In spite of such creepy rhetoric, it is certainly a good thing that  OBL is gone. No doubt, one wonders how the death of a symbolic leader like bin Laden can negatively inspire those who follow his teaching. One hopes it does. Ross Douthat has a sober account of our own national passions of fear and loathing regarding the endlessly latent terrorist threat (even if at times our passions were neurotic), and the way these passions have negatively affected our collective political decisions in this near decade since 9/11. He suggests that the death of OBL is a kind of catharsis, and this is surely true. Or one hopes.

In spite of this, my facebook friend noted a tone of anger in President Obama’s statement. I vaguely agreed, but responded that that if there were no anger, then there may as damn well better be a show of anger. That is to say, a modest degree of anger “presidential style”—and not Donald Trump f-bombing left and right—was appropriate. I noted that this assassination mission against bin Laden, like the precision assassination mission against the Somali pirates, is an example of what is ultimate in executive power. It is a life or death mission, and the president as commander in chief authorizes it. Of course the hard work and bravery of our fighting men and women (need I say this?) makes it possible in real time and effect. Their hard work and courage needs to be applauded. And on second thought, I remembered that in Herodotus, the identity of the false Smerdis was revealed in the intimate clutches of a man and woman. So I felt that I could safely say men and women were integral to the success of the mission in this case not having any knowledge of how it was executed. It must have been executed precisely. The U.S. has the body after all.

Obama may be a naïf when it comes to international affairs or global actions, and he may think that this specific action was based on his own genius (with the help of Leon Panetta at the CIA), but surely the killing of OBL is an example of the use of a strong executive that is allowed to him under this form of government as it has developed over history. He is simply exercising his constitutional powers as executive broadly understood. If he comes across as angry as my friend says, then that’s simply Obama’s fault. Calling for the murder of someone else, even someone as vile as Osama bin Laden, requires a degree of anger. Even with anger such action involves no prejudice. In this case OBL was like the punk who felt no luck in front of Harry Callahan’s Magnum .44.

All of us should be angry at OBL’s evil intent and evil deeds on 9/11 and on earlier occasions. If anything, President Obama needs to worry about coming across as too much a Don Corleone type in this affair. He will gain many chips for his toughness; however, as he continues to play the engagement card in international affairs, he needs to beware of his own lethality as president. No doubt, he used the lethality in the right way in this case (and I am glad for this), but he needs to beware of the contrast between his eminent reasonableness and engagement on the one hand, and his lethal killing on the other. President Obama has a disarming smile, but he will f**k you up if you get in the way. This can be useful in foreign affairs, but the Chicago style—“if they put one of your own in the hospital, you put one of their own in the morgue” (stated with a Sean Connery brogue)—betrays the very hope and change upon which his candidacy was based. The hope and change that comedian Seth Meyers said the Obama of 2011 missed from the Obama of 2008 hinged on the idea of his being a “citizen of the world”—as Obama stated it in Berlin during his presidential candidacy.

It seems President Obama has too much contrast between lethality and naivete. As one of Obama’s favorite theolgians, Reinhold Niebuhr, liked to point out, such a division between lethality and naivete can come to applaud power for its own sake. As Lincoln worried about executive power being as addictive as morphine, one must wonder what the limit of such executive power can be even as it kills someone so worthy of the full force of official American lethality as Osama bin Laden. Let me sate in as clear as manner as possible, there is nothing wrong with Obama authorizing in the killing of OBL (as I likewise applauded the killing of Somali pirates), but he needs to watch it in his Kantian moves toward universal rights in the kingdom of ends throughout the world as guiding American foreign policy. President Obama can speak as no other person can about the “arc of history” moving toward ever greater justice (okay Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King also spoke of the “arc of justice” before him), but he seems to be silent on means to achieve justice until those means become useful for his purposes. No doubt, this is called pragmatism as James Kloppenberg has reminded us, but it could also be called arbitrariness as it is involved in the “construction of the good” as John Dewey put it. Obama seems to have a sense of the end point of action, even if he has not outlined the means for achieving that end. It is up for us and him to make it real. He has offered a generalized and vague end called hope and change—or as acdemics call it, “democracy” (idiosyncratically understood). However, without a clear purpose persuasive to many and likewise lacking any sense of clear means viable according to usual constitutional means—a means and end that could be explained to all and not thrown to Congress to make a 2000 some page bill at their own will—his killing of OBL could appear as arbitrary as his arbitrary picks on policy or the NCAA Tournament. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that Obama authorized the killing of OBL (and this whole line of criticism seems small minded, but I can’t help myself). One must remember his past speeches against any such use of forceful action prior to his own holding of executive power. Apparently such force is okay now. Do we need to open all the deliberations leading to such a momentous decision to the transparency of a Congressional hearing? I would not be surprised if this were the response of then Sen. Obama against President Bush.

As commander in chief, President Obama finds himself in the same position as former Pres. Bush—“smoke him out”—and Obama did what Bush could not do, viz. kill bin Laden. He should be applauded for this. But at this point one must wonder if the president is not constrained by his own rhetoric—as for instance in Libya. He could kill Qaddafi “Godfather style” all the while speaking in terms of UN Security Council sanctions, but it would still be illegal to kill Qaddafi—apparently one must be a neutral referee in a civil war. Unless one wants to admit that what the Security Council says is what the president says it is, one is constrained by international law. At least Bush knew that he was acting in the absence of UN sanctions when he invaded Iraq. I fear Obama thinks he can act unilaterally on the basis of his own good conscience in the name of humanity—or at least in the name of the UN. This is not good. It is as if Obama knows better than anyone else—as if he is a philosopher king. I doubt this is the case, but what does Obama have to offer other than his own judgment. He will not offer a coherent account of his foreign policy other than the fact that he has said it, and his saying is somehow genius. Our meritocratic president, educated at Columbia and Harvard, with a middle name of Hussein, is simply asking us to trust him in his use of executive power. It has always been this way perhaps, but with the customary mechanisms of the “rhetorical” presidency and the “personal” presidency making an almost “cult” of the presidency, one wonders.

This may be asinine, and it is good that bin Laden is dead. If Obama showed anger, he restrained it in his usual professorial good manner.

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Articles by John Presnall

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