“Obama has a degree of credibility now that he'd lacked before. He's not a military man, not steeped in military culture. That's all still true. But now it's basically canceled out. He got bin Laden. Period stop. An utterly un-rebuttable statement of strength. . . .Contemplating a “balls[y]” liberal president confidently throwing his weight around in foreign affairs is a strange sensation for conservatives and liberals alike. But it’s an especially welcome sensation for liberals. Admit it, isn't it a relief not having to come up with a tortuous explanation of why, despite appearances, being genuinely "presidential" in this day and age is a matter of having the moral fortitude to preside intelligently over the country's relative decline by “leading from behind”? Yet liberals should be self-conscious enough to admit that the rush of satisfaction they're getting contemplating Obama's newfound bellicosity is a guilty pleasure.
“The GOP narrative about Obama has been in part predicated on his exoticism, let's call it, and in part on this idea that he's a weak leader whom they can push around. Now, he's done the ballsiest thing that an American president has done since who knows when, and he succeeded at it. Perfectly.”
Yesterday I remarked on how both Obama and George Bush promiscuously combine the language of war and the language of justice when they talk about counterterrorism. They both thought taking bin Laden out was a vital national security objective, not only because it would help disable Al Qaeda going forward, but to secure a measure of backward-looking retributive justice for 9/11. Reader Lone Wolf commented acutely that both Obama and Bush were confusing "justice” and “revenge.”
Let’s reflect a little bit on the difference. Justice and revenge are both a form of retribution, a way of restoring the moral order by making miscreants pay for their misconduct. But we normally think of "justice" as something dispensed by a disinterested party, like a judge or a duly vetted jury, after an authoritative determination of guilt. Revenge (or vengeance) is retribution administered by the victim of earlier misconduct answering only to himself and his own standards.
Any way you slice it, what happened to bin Laden Sunday was not justice, but revenge. As I write these words, I’m still trying to sort out inconsistent-sounding reports: Obama sent the Navy SEALS on a “kill-mission” but we would have taken bin Laden alive if he’d surrendered without a fight; he was taken out because he resisted arrest, but didn’t have a weapon in his hand when the SEALS fired the fatal shot; etc.
If bin Laden either wasn’t really resisting arrest, or his resistance wasn't really life-threatening to the SEALS, his death was a targeted assassination. As such, it had nothing much to do with the disinterested administration of justice, or an excusable exercise of our right of self-defense. Indeed, it was arguably forbidden by both the laws of criminal justice and the law of war.
Killing bin Laden, however, was a perfectly good way of "taking vengeance" or "exacting revenge" through an extra-judicial execution. It was hard to listen to Obama explain himself without getting the impression that was what was really going on. Beneath the affected solemnity and the lamely uplifting rhetoric about what Americans can do when they put their mind to it, Obama's message was crystal clear: I took the guy out because he deserved it; you got a problem with that?
That wouldn’t have been an incongruous thing for George Bush, or any other neo-conservative, to say. They think of the international system as a state of nature in which justice, properly so-called, is out of place because there’s no perfectly disinterested authority to dispense it. That's why they dismiss the International Criminal Court’s pretense of being a uniquely disinterested dispenser of international justice as anti-American subterfuge.
As far as neo-conservatives are concerned, it’s the job of the United States to police the international system according to its own lights because American standards of international rectitude are the best worldly approximation of universal standards. American national interests are therefore uniquely congruent with the interests of all nations and peoples. Once you buy into the neo-conservative idea of American exceptionalism, American vengeance is the closest approximation of disinterested justice you’re likely to see in the real world of international affairs.
Yet wind up any liberal and he'll tell you that it’s the American President’s job to promote a rule-governed world order in which international institutions disinterestedly dispense justice and unilateral military action is illegitimate unless it's a matter of exercising an inalienable right of self-defense. So where does a liberal president get off portraying himself as the avenger-in-chief of the international order? And where, for that matter, do liberals get off reveling in the spectacle of him doing it?
Liberals can bask in their newfound admiration for Obama or uphold their vision of the international system. But it's hard to see how, in good conscience, they can do both of those things at once.