With all the attacks on his leadership from the professional left, it’s all too easy to forget that Barack Obama is by far the most liberal president in American history. From permitting gays to serve openly in the military to saying they should even be allowed to get married, the president has deftly tied his most progressive policies to America’s most reactionary institutions, upholding the long liberal tradition of making the status quo more sustainable, its excesses more subtle. But to the outraged left, helping Americans isn’t enough. He’s supposed to concern himself with the lives of foreigners, too.
As progressive pundit Joy Reid wryly observes, the effeminate anti-Obama purists are at such pains to attack this president that they’re forced to spend more time condemning what goes on outside America than the reforms he’s talked about instituting within it. Indeed, Reid notes they’re the sort that, at a loss to explain record corporate profits — bye bye, Bush recession — turn to arguing “the government’s use of drones and waging of covert wars and the drug war are the most pressing problems facing the planet.”
If you can stomach the toxicity, just consider the implicit Birtherism: that President Obama should be more concerned about non-Americans than registered American voters, as if he’s not even American himself. And consider the classism and misogyny. Amid a GOP-led war on women, Lesley Stahl on the U.S. embargo against Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” — 60 Minutes (1996)the privileged far left would have us believe protecting the life of some impoverished stay-at-home Buzkashi mom is as vital as safeguarding a successful, independent American woman’s access to subsidized birth control — that a Madeleine Albright or Hillary Rodham Clinton are no more important than some willfully oppressed third-worlder in a burka.
Tritely declaring President Obama no different from George W. Bush, these nominally left-wing suppressors of the vote even adopt the same bigoted, “pro-life” language one would expect to find outside an abortion clinic in Kansas, proclaiming our commander-in-chief a “criminal” and “baby killer” all because he has killed a few regrettable babies as part of wars that much of the world considers criminal — a privilege, mind you, never denied any of his white predecessors. They even attack the president because he has had the temerity to protect the lives of American servicemen and women through the record-breaking use of drones, ensuring the greatest threat they face is carpal tunnel, not a bullet from an angry savage.
Don’t let the baby-killing rhetoric from the emo-left fool you, though: drones don’t just protect important people, they protect Pakistanis and Yemenis too. Indeed, we know that because that’s what those who use them say. Repeatedly, the boss of country’s advisors have assured us that civilian deaths in his drone wars are “exceedingly rare” and that, even when they do take life, it’s only to protect it. Not even Glenn Greenwald — basically just a whiter, more privileged Anwar al-Awlaki — disputes these facts.
Yet the left, from Noam Chomsky to the Brookings Institution, persists in talking about civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan and wherever that have already been officially denied. That raises the question: for what electoral purpose? Talking about innocent men, women, and children killed by our way of life isn’t going to bring them back, but it will undermine support among President Obama’s left-wing base. Indeed, while some pacifists confuse their personal beliefs with politically viable policy solutions — thinking, as blogger Adam Serwer puts it, that America should stick to “using banana creme pies or wifflebats in its defense” — President Obama is compelled to live in the real world. And there he must confront real threats, like a potential GOP takeover of the Senate, that require an active and politically unassailable foreign policy. Instead of dwelling on dead foreigners and arguing and bickering over which president killed which child, the left would do well to remember the huge advances in progressive rhetoric we’ve made these last four years. Instead of bashing the man who saved us from Sarah Palin, we ought to be rededicating ourselves to addressing the most pressing problem the planet faces right now: defeating Mitt Romney.
After all, if you don’t like that Barack Obama possesses the unilateral ability to decide who lives or dies, imagine how insufferable that power would be in the hands of the former Massachusetts governor. Instead of laughing with the president as he jokes about drone striking the Jonas Brothers, we would probably be stuck listening to an awkward Romney make dated quips about offing the Allman Brothers.
Rejecting the Gnostic, all-war-is-evil left, liberals also need to push back hard against those who would neglect the nuanced differences between a radical right Republican killing innocent men, women and children as part of a unilateral war for oil, and a center left administration doing the same under the auspices of a limited defensive action or long-term military occupation condoned by the Western European world community. And we need to recognize that in many ways anti-imperialism is just another form of cultural imperialism, insisting as it does that each and every nation of people must abide by the same strict moral or international legal code. If we’re accepting of cultures that hunt whales, there’s no reason we should turn around and condemn our own just because it prefers to hunt Muslims.
We liberals also ought to quit patronizing the innocent victims of our wars by portraying them as innocent victims of our wars. As I learned on a recent trip to Pakistan, often times these “victims” — or rather, their survivors — will tell you they don’t feel victimized at all: they feel empowered. Indeed, many say they’re just happy to be taking part as some of the first proud people of color to be warred upon by a proud American emperor of color.
“My family, they were not terrorists,” one man who lost his wife and three sons in a drone strike told me in an interview. “But,” he added, wiping tears of what were presumably joy from his face, “now they are history.” The man, whose name I have forgotten, was probably called Mohammad.
We should be extremely wary of claims to innocence by any “victim” of the Obama administration. We know Republicans will stop at nothing to undermine his presidency, so when confronted with hundreds of children burned to death by Hellfire missiles under his watch, one must ask, Who does it benefit? If their charred remains will be used to undermine the left’s enthusiasm for the president, depressing voter turnout — a classic tactic of Karl Rove — can they really be said to be innocent at all?
During my time in Waziristan, I found the people of Pakistan understood this better than most self-styled progressives. For instance, I met a a young couple whose 9-year-old daughter, their pride and joy, had her life cut short because she made the mistake of hanging around men between the ages of 10 and 85. But her father — let’s call him Mohammad II — recounted to me that the real tragedy of his daughter’s death would be if it undermined President Obama’s political capital, and with it his ability to expand Americans’ access to quality, affordable health care.
“My daughter was a precocious child,” he explained to me. Insisting I refer to her as “Lilly Ledbetter,” her father recounted how she cried as much the day Obama was inaugurated as the day he had her killed. At the tender age of 7, she even had a blistering letter to the editor concerning the solvency of the Social Security trust fund published in The Washington Post, leading to a regular guest-blogging gig for Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum. Far from bitter, he said she would have accepted her own death as the unfortunate result of GOP intransigence, knowing the man who brought mandated health insurance to the masses had no choice but to dramatically escalate the drone war in her country lest Republicans argue he had not dramatically escalated the drone war in her country.
Lilly’s father then told a story that has stuck with me ever since. As she lay dying in a pool of her own blood and vomit, the overpoweringly putrid scent of death wafting in the air as her father cupped the intestines spilling out her mangled abdomen, the littlest Ledbetter faintly breathed her final words. And like the laudable columnist Ezra Klein, she was on message.
“It’s so cruel,” she said, whimpering as tears fell from her bloodshot eyes to her blood-smeared cheek, “what Mitt Romney did to that dog.”