On Thursday, Obama delivered a speech on U.S. counter-terrorism policy (the GWOT) at the National Defense University. The most memorable parts of the speech were not the words he spoke but rather the interruptions by anti-war activist and CODE PINK founder Medea Benjamin. If you want to read good takes on Obama' speech, I'd recommend this, this, or this. In essence, my main takeaway was that words are not a policy change because policy change only occurs when you change policies.
I want to address the interaction between Obama and Medea Benjamin. In response to Medea's heckling (or birddogging as I've heard some call it), Obama responded, "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn't listening to me and much of what I said. But these are tough issues. And the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." Medea was listening to what he said because her questions were directed at issues he was clearly evading. He said that he didn't agree with much of what she said. Let's look at the questions and statements she shouted with which he claimed to disagree.
What about the indefinite detention?This is a question. One cannot disagree with a question, only its phrasing or its premises. Obama signed the NDAA just a few months ago despite its provisions for indefinite detention, and his oft-cited 2009 plan to close Gitmo would not have ended indefinite detention either. Progressive former senator Russ Feingold voted against it precisely because it did not address that key issue.
What about the 102 hunger strikers?He can't disagree with that either. It's a question. He might only disagree with the premise if he acknowledges that the tally is now 103.
What about the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki? Why was he killed?Again, this is a question. He cannot disagree with it as such, and its premise is true: 16 year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone. In his letter to Pat Leahy, Eric Holder claimed that Abdulrahman was not "specifically targeted," but that language seems intentionally vague as Marcy Wheeler and Jeremy Scahill have both explained.
Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives?The first and second questions had factual premises and demanded explanations. This question is different. One cannot disagree with such a question, per se. However, saying "I don't agree" would be effectively a "no," a rather disturbing answer.
Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?Again, one cannot disagree with a question. He cannot disagree with its premise either, i.e. that he can stop the signature strikes. The targets of signature strikes are unidentified; they are merely killed for "suspicious activities." Think stop-and-frisk, but instead of getting stopped and frisked, you get killed.
Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed?As this is a yes-or-no question, a disagreement is an effective "no." The U.S. tends not to like to apologize for the atrocities it commits or facilitates in other countries.
Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home.A question and a statement. With the former, a disagreement is an effective "no," i.e. that he will not compensate the families of innocent victims. Ending the drone war or at least taking such actions as compensating the families of innocent civilians could reduce "blowback," making us safer at home. That statement is true. Three scholars from the University of Arizona published in article in the Middle East Policy Journal last fall that highlighted five forms of "blowback":
-Attacks on America targets such as the 2009 Khost bombing of a CIA Camp
- Increased ability of Al Qaeda to recruit new members, particularly those who had loved ones killed in drone attacks
- Decreased U.S. accountability, resulting from control of the drone program oscillating between the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Continued destabilization of Yemen
- An increasingly precarious alliance between the American and Yemeni governments
Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA?A disagreement would be an implicit no, but transferring control over the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon, where there would be more oversight, is entirely within his power.
You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners [cleared for release]. It's been 11 years.Yes, he is commander-in-chief; that is a fact. It is also a fact that Gitmo has been open for 11 years.
Although the President often likes putting the blame on Congress, he certainly shares the burden for the continuation of the moral stain that is Guantanamo Bay Prison. The executive branch, not Congress, placed the moratorium on transferring prisoners to Yemen. According to Human Rights First, Obama could have appointed "a high-level White House official with responsibility to ensure timely and effective implementation of the president’s plan to close Guantanamo" at any time. He could have also--again, at any time-- directed Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, or Chuck Hagel "in concurrence with the secretary of state and in consultation with the director of national intelligence, to certify detainee transfers and issue national security waivers, to the fullest extent possible consistent with applicable law.”
In an op-ed this morning in the NYT, Joe Nocera furthered this argument that Obama has more power to close Guantanamo than he admits: "One reason innocent detainees can’t get out is that the courts have essentially ruled that a president has an absolute right to imprison anyone he wants during a time of war — with no second-guessing from either of the other two branches of government. By the same legal logic, a president can also free any prisoner in a time of war."
I love my country. I love the rule of law.Since these are statements, one can disagree with them. A disagreement would either mean that Obama believes that Medea Benjamin does not love her country and the rule of law or that Obama himself does not love his country or the rule of law. I would infer he means neither; however, the failure of the Department of Justice to bring accountability to the banksters or the Bush administration architects of the torture regime shows that the administration's respect for the rule of law is wanting. The drone program itself, as it has operated, is also in clear violation of the rule of law.
Abide by the rule of law. You're a constitutional lawyer.The first part is a command, the second a statement. The statement is factually true; he cannot disagree. Does he disagree with her command, i.e., to abide by the rule of law?
Now, Obama may not have actually heard Medea Benjamin's questions and statements. However, it's never wise to disagree with something that you haven't heard.