Where Are We On the Post-War Road?

In a reaction to the data-mining revelations of this week that helps clarify my own, WaPo’s Greg Sargent suggests quite appropriately that we view this issue through the prism (no pun intend) of Obama’s recent NDU speech declaring an end to the Global War On Terror even as he continues to deploy some of its weapons:

[T]he basic question here is whether Obama actually wants to resolve the contradiction he himself has articulated as a pressing national challenge. He has sought to deal with this contradiction by arguing that we must have a “debate” about the proper security-civil liberties balance. But this effectively casts this as a process that will be resolved at some unforeseen point in the future. What’s more, by reserving the right to continue with an array of aggressive tactics, Obama is also confirming that he sees his own role as “commander in chief” as one that requires him to err on the side of national security over civil liberties when he deems fit, even as he continues to ask us, in effect, to trust him to work towards getting that balance right. That position has become harder to sustain in the wake of the new revelations. And it will be on Obama to prove that he is seriously interested in restoring the proper balance that he himself seems to hold up as the ideal goal.

The only point on which I’d differ from Greg is to note that some of the GWOT practices Obama has continued or even intensified–say, drones and data-mining–aren’t remotely as offensive to the majority of Americans as, say, ground wars and ethnic profiling. In other words, security versus civil liberties isn’t the only tradeoff involved: the cost (in both blood and treasure) and inconvenience to Americans of this or that anti-terrorist tactic matter a lot as well. And I think we’ll see in the coming days a bit of a disconnect between civil libertarians who view the data-mining operation as pure evil and regular folks who are only vaguely concerned if at all. Those who just hate Obama on general principles will side with the former on tactical grounds, of course. It’s one of those moments where making generalizations about what “the American people” think could be especially perilous.

But ultimately, Greg’s right that Obama’s raised questions about where we are on the road to a post-GWOT world that he doesn’t seem prepared to answer.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.