In the middle of a speech on counter-terrorism, President Obama called for constructive engagement with and by Congress. In so doing, he articulated a crucially needed change in the nature and practice of twenty-first century American politics.
On May 23, 2013, at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., President Obama gave a speech of that called for engagement with Congress. In many quarters, this went completely unnoticed. He spoke the truth, many truths, and nothing but the truth First he said: “Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror.” We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.” This is both heroic and thoughtful because it state the inconvenient truth that both presidential and overall American power have real limits. . He cited a way to make progress on the many issues almost as a throwaway line or transitional phrase. Beyond the specific issues he discussed, this pathway to governance is the central point and crucial insight for these troubled and dysfunctional times.
Conventional wisdom in today’s toxic political culture ignores the constitutional and practical limits of power. President Obama’s predecessor operated on a radically different theory they called “the New Paradigm.” It held that as Commander in Chief with national security at stake, a president could not be limited by domestic or international law. If national security was at stake, no legal constraints could stand in the President’s way. For example, the Geneva Conventions became optional. In contrast, President Obama acknowledged constitutional and international legal limits, as well as the real limits that confront presidents in practical terms. With a distinct and admirable absence of bombast, President Obama revived the discussion of “the theory of “just war,” which requires a balance between means and ends, demanding proportionality whenever the state resorts to the use of force.” In this speech, President Obama came down firmly on the side of might does not make right. Given the widespread practice of distortion and deceit in contemporary politics, his moral clarity will be sullied by distortions from both the right and the left end of the political spectrum. “Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, released a statement criticizing what he called the [Drone] program’s “insufficient transparency.” “Within minutes of the president’s speech, conservatives on Capitol Hill had already begun jumping on him for having a “pre-9/11 mindset”—as if, somehow, the 9/11 mindset should last forever.” Both critics revealed their complete incomprehension of President Obama’s effort. The president was not trying to definitively answer all questions. Rather he was seeking, at least in part, to put the right questions on the table.
After stipulating what no president and no nation can do, President Obama specified what together, we can and must do:
“But what we can do, what we must do, is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear but on hard- earned wisdom.”
No president no elected or appointed federal official, no patriotic citizen, can shrink from these obligations nor evade these challenges. Those who pose a clear and present danger to the Republic and Americans must be detected and defeated. Fundamental freedoms and foundational ideals must be preserved, protected, and perfected. Decisions must be reached through rational consideration not fearful or spiteful rationalization.
Every American who holds or seeks elective or appointed office should support the president in pursuit of these three imperatives to defeat, defend and decide. Regrettably many political and opinion leaders have chosen to quibble and quarrel for the sake of ideological purity or politically power. The American political culture has become a desert riddled with fever swamps. One of these Jonathan Chait calls the “the fever swamp of the center”; so-called centrists fanatical devotion to the proposition that both parties are equally at fault is especially pernicious. Such breeding grounds of rabid partisanship some in the name of nonpartisanship make constructive discourse extremely difficult if not impossible. Neither all politicians nor both parties are equally responsible for the dysfunction of the American political system. Some politicians and one party seek to govern; too many politicians and another party seek mainly to disrupt, if not destroy, governance.
Real enemies of the United States and Americans do exist, but for the most part they are not traditional nation-states. They are al Qaeda remnants, various al Qaeda affiliates, state- sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals, local operatives — perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks, and radicalized individuals here in the United States. These enemies must be identified, monitored, and neutralized. This is a fundamental presidential and governmental responsibility. President Obama rightly asserts – “We have to take these threats seriously and do all that we can to confront them.” This applies to every patriotic American, not merely the President. He further correctly declares – “And in an age when ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism can’t depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.” All of us must acknowledge for the foreseeable future, there is little alternative to vigilance and no real substitute for victory. That being the case, however, the president is also correct in saying: “We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
America, its political leaders, and its citizens need to get serious; they need to return to civility; they need to recommit to the unifying principles and first purposes that make the Republic worthy of devotion up to and including the last full measure. They need to rationally consider the instruments of military power and choose those best suited to the threat they are meant to address. Technology is neither good nor evil. Human beings who use technology do so for either good or evil ends. In such circumstances, the ends may not justify the means, but they surely classify the means as tools of either good or evil. A weapon which kills a ruthless terrorist is put to good use; any weapon which kills an innocent person is put to an evil use. In war, most weapons have the potential and, too often the actual, effect of killing both the vicious and the virtuous. This duality applies all weapons of war from bayonets to bombs. Despite this dilemma, political leaders and ordinary citizens must rise to the challenge of meeting and defeating the threats posed by those who would make themselves our enemies.
Having established the legitimacy of America’s assertion of self-defense, President Obama says this “cannot be the end of the discussion.” Legal and effective military tactics are not necessarily wise or ethical in every case. America and Americans must develop and deploy a more comprehensive approach which diminishes the “wellsprings of radicalism.” We must transition from waging war to forging peace. We must never fail to defeat real adversaries, but we must never forget to develop genuine allies. We must enable to be positively energized by the power of our example and not merely intimidated by the exercise of our power. Regardless of the real and imagined powers of the presidency, the American Republic is not a one person show. For effective action on numerous weighty issues any president needs constructive engagement from Congress. As President Obama averred: “despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these and other options ….” This may be the most courageous comment of this entire speech. Active, productive engagement on genuine issues in pursuit of practical solutions is a haunting memory in American politics today. As E. J. Dionne says, “it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy. Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.” On Fox News Sunday, May 26, 2013, Bob Dole essentially said that no mainstream Republican from the last four decades could survive in today’s GOP. There are few living people who personally understand better how the Senate is supposed to work, so when Bob Dole tells you that the filibuster is being abused, Congress is dysfunctional and the Republican party has been hijacked, it is time to listen and it is time for a change.
This real and present danger imperils progress on all the matters raised in President Obama’s profound speech. If prominent politicians and influential political operatives cannot or will not disentangle themselves from perpetual power struggles, they may discredit the Republic they purport to serve. Regardless of party affiliation, no matter their ideological preference, all duly elected officials and truly patriotic citizens, share the responsibility of governance. This requires them to forego power struggles and cease the permanent campaign. They must identify issues and collaboratively develop workable responses. If the current rule or ruin obstructionism persists, the perceived legitimacy of our constitutional Republic could severely erode. In a whimsical manner the Republic bequeathed to contemporary Americans is like Tinkerbelle – it exists only so long as people believe in it. In the twenty-first century, however, Americans, according to Mann and Ornstein, “are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law.” This collapse of regular order and reasonable civility in the federal government has spawned such cynicism and disaffection that John McCain quips approval of Congress is “down to blood relatives and paid staffers.” If credibility is not regained, the Republic will die even if its forms persist.
There are widely heralded remedies which are the verbal equivalent of patent medicines – term limits, balanced budget amendments, third parties, publicly financed elections, and a blasé this too shall pass perspective – are all ineffective or even harmful. There are some actions that really could help such as authentic filibuster reform, non-partisan congressional districting, and open primaries, but a real source of improvement lies within the power of every elected official and every involved citizen. If all Americans keep the pledge most made as children and fulfill the oath all take when elected, relentless power struggling would cease and genuine governance would resume. Human behavior is causing the problem and what humans are doing they can choose to cease doing.
Citizenship trumps membership – it is time for us all to remember and act on this simple truth. As Robert Kennedy told us in 1964, “The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use — of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.” Every elected official has sworn a solemn oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the U S Constitution. This requires the responsible use of the enumerated, necessary, and proper powers. Obstructing the effective operation of government is an irresponsible and indulgent use of political power. This problem is caused by the chosen actions of human beings and it can be mitigated and minimized by better choices by these same human beings.
We, the people, the ultimate sovereigns, must come to our senses. We must pursue and achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. This is not a question is not what programs we should endorse. It is only tangentially a question of which candidates we should support. It is mainly and primarily a question of finding in our own minds and hearts that commitment to the humane perspective that recognizes the vanity and venality of the false distinctions of faction and fashion among us. We must learn our own advancement lies in facilitating the advancement of others. We must acknowledge that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by animosity, acrimony and a constant struggle for power and political advantage. Our time on this planet is too short and the work before us is too great to let this divisive, disputatious spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course it will not be banished with a politician’s declaration, vanquished with a single program, nor routed by a solemn resolution. We can, however, recognize our fellow citizens as brothers and sisters from other mothers. And on this kinship begin to look at those around us as compatriots, not competitors. Then, surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us, bridge the gaps between us and to become in our own hearts once more Americans united in the common pursuit of liberty, justice, equality, and prosperity for all.
If we allow the dysfunction so widely in evidence to chase us into disengagement, we betray our birthright and surrender our children’s future to the predatory partisans and their plutocratic masters. As it is now practiced by far too many candidates, operatives, and activists, politics has become a tragedy of the commons where self-interested actors consume our civic capital even though they know this self-aggrandizement is destructive of the Republic and the citizenry’s best, long-term interest.
We can submit to despair, or we can “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” The choice is ours – the freedoms and futures we nobly save or meanly lose will be our as well.