My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night. Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance. First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering. Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder. My wife and I looked at each other. Are you fearful, honey? Neither am I.
President Obama himself made many good points. Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam. Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA. Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people). And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.
These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious. But he does. Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.
Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.
Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame. Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones. (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)
President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror. All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards. Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less. Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror. Not such a good idea, right?
Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office. As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure. Wrong. His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within. Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent. “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders. Liberty was. And liberty entails risks.
A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost. (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)
The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values. He was right to talk about human dignity. He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear. Now we as Americans need to live up to those words. And so does he.