Just what is the country supposed to make of our president's rambling stream-of-consciousness billed as a Major Policy Address at the National Defense University last week?
To try to summarize:
At such moments it occurs how simple it would have been to end the Cold War (which had its hot moments) if only some president had declared it over long before its source imploded with the collapse of the Evil Empire. Unfortunately, reality kept intervening. For decades. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the big problem with declaring a unilateral peace is that it may be observed only unilaterally.
Nevertheless, this president is going to further limit the grounds for those drone attacks abroad -- they've been so effective the military and CIA are running out of targets anyway -- in order to limit what's come to be called "collateral damage," which is still the euphemism du jour for the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians in any war.
The president made it clear that he is shocked, shocked! to discover that war, even one he declares a just war, is unjust to the innocents caught up in it. So he's going to restrict these drone attacks to only those that can be conducted with near certainty, virtual certainty, or almost certainty that no innocents will be offed, too. Neat. A lot neater than reality.
What are the requirements for ordering a drone attack now -- being only kind of certain nothing will go wrong? Unfortunately, kind-of-certain or even almost-certain is not certain, any more than being virtually certain is a sound basis for decisions in war or even, as any cub reporter soon discovers, in journalism.
The president is also going to call off his war on Fox News, the AP and any other journalistic enterprise that doesn't toe his line. Why, he had no idea what his Justice Department was up to when it went after reporters for doing their jobs. Any more than he did about the whole spate of scandals still bubbling on his stovetop as various congressional committees lift the covers on all those pots to reveal the boiling messes underneath -- from the IRS scandal to the succession of fact-free cover stories out of the White House about what happened at Benghazi. All of those outrages came as a shock, a shock! to President Innocent Bystander, too.
And the president is still going to close the military prison at Guantanamo. Where's he going to move the prisoners now being held there? To borrow an old lyric from Cab Calloway back in the midst of another war, he don't know where and he don't know when.
Is he just going to build an exact duplicate of Gitmo on the American mainland and, like the war on terror, say the problem is winding down? Just release all these illegal combatants and wait for them to attack again? Revive the practice of sending these clear and present dangers to their host countries, where they can be tortured without raising messy legal questions? Naturally, this practice has a nice euphemism, too: rendition.
Or should we transfer these hardest cases to the mainland but, rather than entrust them to a criminal justice system that might release them, hold them in Preventive Detention indefinitely, whatever the Constitution and the Bill of Rights might have to say about that? Happily, there is a whole body of law that deals specifically with the topic of unlawful combatants in wartime: military law. Presidents since George Washington have relied on it. Is this president's prejudice against military law so strong that it prevents him from following it in these cases?
The president's answer to all those questions? He's going to leave such matters to Congress; this president has never been one for bothersome details. They're below his pay grade. His specialty is the big picture: Hope, Change, Audacity! Hey, he's still audacious. And how.
To quote the same response the president made to a heckler at this empty performance of his at the National Defense University, "these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can just gloss over them is wrong." But it's worth a try, as he demonstrated in this substanceless speech.
Of all the president's glib generalities in a speech that seemed to consist of nothing but, my favorite in a crowded field was this: "This war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises." There's no arguing with that. Indeed, the president would have been on equally firm ground if he had noted that "this peace, like any peace, must end." For that's what history advises, too. Certainly the history of the last century does.
Few other statesmen can rival our president for making a banality sound like a discovery.
. . .
So just what is the country supposed to make of all this? My best guess: not much. The president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States sounds more like a constitutional law professor who's taken all his notes to class but has no real idea of how they fit together and, if so, what conclusion they lead to, if any. He just counts on his students to sort them out. If they can. Good luck with that.
Call it a Socratic dialogue -- and it would be if Barack Obama were Socrates and he were engaged in a dialogue, not just another political ceremony, with the emphasis on ceremony rather than substance. The president seemed to feel a need to address some of the multiplying doubts and confusions about his defense policy, if he has one, so he raised some more. There. That's taken care of. Now let's move on. Back to where we started: in a general murk.
There is one thing clear from the president's speech: He doesn't want to be a wartime president. He'd much rather be able to concentrate on domestic affairs. Which is understandable. George W. Bush felt the same way; he, too, looked forward to being a peacetime president. But the best-laid plans of mice and presidents gang aft a-gley.
John Quincy Adams, an eloquent statesman, spoke of an America prudent in her foreign policy, a nation that "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
Wise as his words were, the second President Adams did not say what course Americans should adopt when the monsters come in search of us. As on December 7, 1941. Or on September 11, 2001. And when the gathering storm breaks over our heads, and our isolationist dream is shattered again, we are always surprised.
And now Barack Obama would like to return to a September 10th kind of world and a policy to match, a policy that treated terrorism as an isolated criminal matter, not a worldwide jihad against the West. He seems heedless of where such a policy led: to September 11th.
Will he, or we, ever learn?
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)