Obama seems to finally have reached that most amusing point in a two-term presidency: The point where he can’t be bothered. Exhibit #1 is his Vox interview to come across as a Niebuhrian realist, a total gradualist badass, rather than the figurehead cum glorified pencil-pusher any president is:
The goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn’t mean perfect. It just means it’s better. The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty. I’ve said this before and I think some folks in Washington were like, ‘Oh, he’s ignoring the chaos of all the terrible stuff that’s happening.’ Of course, I’m not ignoring it. I’m dealing with it every day. That’s what I wake up to each morning. I get a thick book full of death, destruction, strife, and chaos. That’s what I take with my morning tea.
Whoa there Clint Eastwood!
The POTUS (why do conservatives like to use this acronym when their guy isn’t in office? because of the “pot” in POTUS?) channeled the same hyper-Augustinian spirit when he said the following at the National Prayer Breakfast:
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history . . . And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
This predictably made conservatives lose it, but for all the wrong reasons. Most conspicuous among those quoted by Catholics I’m acquainted with was the Catholic apostate, womanizer, academic swindler, and all around good guy Dinesh D’Souza. Dinesh predictably concentrated upon the Crusades, because for him they represent the good Christians fighting the bad Muslims. How the Crusades managed to seriously tick off both the Muslims AND Orthodox Christians against Western Christendom for centuries to come is too complex for the conservatives to take up.
Now for the second non-American Obama mea culpa: Reclaiming the Inquisition against self-hating (neo-) liberal Catholic ideologues such as John Zmirak is of course a pet project of mine. Now I have to defend the Inquisition’s truly Niebuhrian meliorism against Obama, a self-proclaimed Niebuhrian meliorist. (By the way, the Inquisition also quelled some of the mob violence caused by marauding Crusaders looking for blood on their way to the Holy Land).
So let’s start with some extremely lowball statistics from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (City University, London):
At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago, the Bureau’s latest monthly report reveals.
Of the total killed since Obama took his oath of office on January 20 2009, at least 314 have been civilians, while the number of confirmed strikes under his administration now stands at 456.
Research by the Bureau also shows there have now been nearly nine times more strikes under Obama in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than there were under his predecessor, George W Bush.
And the covert Obama strikes, the first of which hit Pakistan just three days after his inauguration, have killed almost six times more people and twice as many civilians than those ordered in the Bush years, the data shows.
The figures have been compiled as part of the Bureau’s monthly report into covert US drone attacks, which are run in two separate missions – one by the CIA and one for the Pentagon by its secretive special forces outfit, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
The research centers on countries outside the US’s declared war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
How do the 350 years of the legal trials conducted by the Spanish Inquisition stack up against a mere six years of extra-judicial Obama drone killings?
Well, well, quite well. According to the most recent research that anyone worth their salt should know forwards and backwards:
The Vatican has published a new study on the abuses committed by the medieval Inquisition and come to a rather surprising conclusion – that in fact the much feared judges of heresy were not as brutal as previously believed.
According to the 800-page report, the Inquisition that spread fear throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages did not use execution or torture to anything like the extent history would have us believe.
In fact the book’s editor, Professor Agostino Borromeo, claims that in Spain only 1.8% of those investigated by the notorious Spanish Inquisition were killed.
Nonetheless, as the report was published, Pope John Paul II apologised once more for the interrogators’ excesses, expressing sorrow for “the errors committed in the service of the truth by the recourse to non-Christian methods”. . .
. . . Professor Borromeo says for example that for 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain, less than 2% were executed.
Even if we highball the Vatican figures up to a 2% rate that still comes out to 2,500 victims over 350 years versus virtually the same amount over six years. It doesn’t look good for Obama.
This is why here is one of the very few times you’ll find me agreeing with Ross Douthat, whose baseline picture of American religiosity in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is erroneously based upon the 1950’s Niebuhr dominated; that period is an anomalous high point of institutional religion domination in a generally otherwise unchurched nation.
In “Obama the Theologian” Douthat correctly accuses Obama of not being Niebuhrian enough:
Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.
Obama was never going to have Ike’s authority, but he could still profit from his example. The deep problem with his Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers “self”-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.
I would only add that if Obama was more Niebuhrian, he’d point out how much worse his drone record is, in terms of deadliness, compared to the Spanish Inquisition, and I suspect the Crusades as well if someone bothers to crunch the numbers on them.
The blurb on the back of The Irony of American History, the standard biography of Niebuhr, has President Obama saying:
[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.
Let’s hope he comes to terms with the serious evil his policies have brought into the world without smearing the past as a diversionary ploy. For now what he’s doing is Machiavellian, not Niebuhrian.
FULL DISCLOSURE: If you follow the BBC link on the Spanish Inquisition above you’ll find out that the German Inquisition, despite getting no press, was far worse with about 25,000 victims. You don’t have to be a math whiz to figure out that if Obama were also given several hundred years, like either one of those Inquisitions, he’d exponentially outstrip them. Therefore, his extra-judicial killings, not to be confused with much additional “collateral damage” in “legitimate” wars, are still much, much worse than the judicial killings of the Inquisitions.