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CounterPunch Diary

There’s a Cancer on the Presidency, Called Barack Obama

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Never trust a president who claims he reads himself to sleep with the help of Marcus Aurelius. That was Bill Clinton, who claimed this thundering imperial bore never strayed far  from his hand.

Most certainly view with profound suspicion a president who professes to be  guided in his conduct in grave moral matters by Augustine and Aquinas, two very different characters. Just as civilization would have profited if the rope lowering St Paul to the ground from that tower in Damascus had broken fifty feet up, a death in the cradle for Augustine would have spared humanity much horror from his poisonous doctrines on original sin and other matters.

Aquinas was a different matter. A jovial fellow, among other things he loved fresh herring, and when he was dying he asked for some. At this point a fishing boat in the Mediterranean hauled an unprecedented netful  of herring and the unexpected catch was slated for a while as the second miracle required for Thomas’ canonization.

The excellent, astounding  New York Times story by Jo Becker and Scot Shane published on May 29 and vigorously discussed on this site by Ralph Nader, says that Obama decided to take personal control of the White House’s secret and unconstitutional death list after reading Augustine and Aquinas. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.” Notice how the paragraph devolves rapidly  from moral duty to pr.

Aquinas, using Augustine, defined a just war thus:

First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Does the following suggest itself to you as a properly instituted authority:

Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, [to] pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies — PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia — and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

Then the baton passes to Obama poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

See St Thomas in action:

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official… When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

Obama makes moral decision-making easier on himself:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

We’ve had accounts of presidents dooming people to death: LBJ or Nixon thumping the maps and shouting Bomb them back to the stone age.  There’s an altogether different, chill timbre to the account of Obama as maestro of the death list. It clearly disquieted many in the host of on-the-record sources mustered by Becker and Shane.

Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war….

And Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said…

Mr. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director and now an adviser to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mr. Romney, commended the president’s aggressive counterterrorism record, which he said had a “Nixon to China” quality. But, he said, “secrecy has its costs” and Mr. Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.

“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

Of course the more  you get used to consigning human Power Point Cards to incineration, without constitutional review, the slightest form of check or balance, the stronger the psychic mechanisms of self justification come into play:

But the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

The larger picture? The entire policy is insane. Every time a drone lands on a suspect al Quaeda leader and kills him and his entourage,  the recruitment basis for Al Qaeda widens, the loathing of America deepens..

There’s a “growing cancer” in the White House, John Dean famously advised Richard Nixon. Beyond doubt there’s a  “growing cancer” now, settled in the Oval Office, studying his Power Point Death list every week. 

Tumbril Time!

A  tumbril (n.)   a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

With rare emotion  Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville announced that “play by the rules” had been captured by revolutionary vigilance, and faced the supreme penalty. This pious phrase, he said, is the tribute power pays to the oppressed.  Yes, he cried, the feudal peasants whose daughters were raped by Monsieur Le Vicomte “played by the rules, ”  even as they groaned under extra taxes levied by the Vicomte.  “Our glorious revolution says No, we do not play by the rules.” A stormy ovation accompanied the condemned to his final night in the Conciergerie.

Our Latest Newsletter

THE DRONE KILLER AND THE STATE OF THE EMPIRE — Jeffrey St Clair profiles Obama and those who believed in him. Alexander Cockburn writes that you’ve got to take the long view, all the way back to Nero. James Bovard on our latest local excursion into fascism: the TSA.  

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Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com