Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's Good to Be The King

President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech has been praised by a number of people I admire. I wish I could agree with them. In fact, even apart from the "War is Peace" elements inherent in a man accepting the Nobel Peace Prize immediately after escalating one of the three wars he is waging, I thought the speech was insidious and appalling.

The speech is fulsome in its praise of the law, and in its call that nations that break the law be punished. "Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted," for example. So far, so good. But then Obama says this:

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. (Applause.) And we honor -- we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it's easy, but when it is hard.

This paragraph is pleasant on the surface, and poisonous underneath. Obama has no more power to prohibit torture than Bush had to permit it. Torture is illegal in America. The law, not the president, is what prohibits torture. What would you make of it if the president said, "That is why I prohibited murder. That is why I prohibited rape. That is why I prohibited embezzlement, and mail fraud, and tax evasion." And the point applies equally to Obama's order to close Guantanamo (which, in any event, is nothing more than classic Obama sleight of hand) and his reaffirmation of the Geneva Conventions.

In America, the president doesn't make the law, nor does he rescind it. The president executes the law -- which is why Article 2 of the Constitution is called "The Executive Branch." Presidents who make and rescind laws at will are more commonly known as kings.

While we're on the subject of the Constitution, that increasingly quaint document, former Harvard Chicago Law Constitutional Law Professor Obama also said this: "But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation...". There is no such oath in the Constitution. Rather, Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that the president will take the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

See if you can spot the difference between the oath Obama now says he took and the one he actually took. President Bush and Vice President Cheney didn't know the difference, either. That, or one or more of these men knows better, but finds distorting the nature of his oath politically expedient.

I suppose Obama felt there was no way around his speech's non-sequitur theme of "We must uphold the law, so I prohibited torture." Because he refuses to prosecute torture (the insane bromide "we have to look forward, not backward" is the real Obama Doctrine), he can't acknowledge torture is a crime. If it's not a crime, it must be just a policy difference. And, indeed, the implication of Obama's benevolent prohibition on torture and refusal to prosecute it is that a less enlightened future president might re-implement the "policy" of torture as easily as Obama rescinded it.

It's good to be the king.


ack said...

Another thing that jumped out at me was the way the paragraph ended ("... not when it's easy, but when it is hard."). That is so similar to the phrasing from Kennedy's inauguration speech I found myself thinking of that.

Unknown said...

"Presidents who make and rescind laws at will are more commonly known as kings."

I think, Barry, they are known as dictators. The last King of England and Canada or Queen Elizabeth has no power to make or break laws.

wolfshades said...

Wasn't this just a mis-step on his part? Sort of like when he bowed too low before a head of state, signifying subservience (but really intending just respect)?

What if he had said, instead: "this is why I will not tolerate torture?" That would have amounted to the same intention of his speech, and would have sacrificed none of the sentiment.

I think he wrongly phrased it, is all.

Charlieopera said...

I figure the arrogance of accepting an award announced after he was in office for three weeks (and then after releasing the hounds of war) was something a King might do, but I'll let him slide on this one.

The Nobel Peace Prize is now worth about the same as my Metro card ($2.25 for a one way ride, but you do get to transfer for free within two hours). This guy has become one giant bust overnight. I'm starting to think maybe Hillary (for her political saavy, if nothing else) would've been a better choice, but I don't know. "They're all the same" rings truer and truer each passing day. Maybe with Hillary SOMETHING would've been accomplished.

It could be he started to believe his own press (the speech, I mean--what bothered you, Barry). I would've had a lot more respect if he passed it along to the next guy and said, "Thanks, but there are IN FACT, more deserving people for this right now. Maybe once I earn it ..."

Josie Brown said...

Thanks for this, Barry. He has disappointed me, too, both on domestic and international issues. He may be the lesser evil...but I'm tired of any evil. Keep writing great stuff, here, and between the pages.

Bill Kelly said...

I believe Obama's teaching was at University of Chicago Law School, not Harvard. He was a student at Harvard, not a professor.

PBI said...

Josie Brown said: "He has disappointed me, too, both on domestic and international issues. He may be the lesser evil... but I'm tired of any evil."


Sensen No Sen

aaron said...


Bear Graves said...

I find myself rather amazed that his writers didn't go with a statement that was simultaneously more legally accurate and, at least to my mind, more powerful: "That is why I will *not* turn my sight away from torture..."

Granted, it probably wasn't the best venue for a more direct slag against his immediate predecessor, but it isn't exactly like there is a ton of love lost between Dubya and the Nobel Peace committee.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you about the laws not being made by a president (or, in Canada, a Prime Minister). I think it's important that you make that point.

I do think perhaps the commenter above who thought this was just a matter of his putting things the wrong way was probably correct, though. It seems to me that he could quite justifiably say "I prohibited torture" if he meant that he put a stop to the unacceptable allowing of torture that his predecessor had engaged in.

Was he necessarily saying he had the power either to allow or prohibit torture -- or was he saying that he had the power to put an end to something that Bush never should have allowed? I suspect it was more the latter.

Phyl at the Bookishgal book blog