False choices, and real ones

I have no strong opinions yet on Sally Jewell, the president’s nominee for Interior Secretary, but alarms went off when I heard how he praised her:

She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.

We’ve heard this kind of language before. When he released the Bush-era memos providing legal cover for torture, Obama said:

A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

In Obama’s rhetorical world, you can always have your cake and eat it too. Nevertheless, both statements contain a kernel of truth. Ignoring climate change will eventually wreck the economy, along with everything else. And unless we live up to our ideals in fighting terrorism, we only inspire more of it. Viewed from an appropriately broad perspective, the priorities don’t conflict.

But is that the lens through which Obama views the world? In the day-to-day conduct of government, choices must be made. The Keystone XL pipeline would undoubtedly benefit those who’ve invested in it. Obtaining energy from sources outside the Middle East may promote security. Those who stand to gain work on the pipeline may have a hard time seeing a downside. But for their children and grandchildren, burning all that tar sands oil would be catastrophic. Asserting that addressing global warming is compatible with untrammelled growth amounts to declaring an unwillingness to bear any costs for it.

On climate change, the president’s record is decidedly mixed. On national security, however, he and his officials have made the choice again and again, and nearly every time civil liberties, the rule of law, and basic humanity have come up short. What devotion to “our ideals” is demonstrated by the following?

  • demanding that lawsuits by torture victims be summarily dismissed on state secret grounds
  • attempting to subvert the global ban on cluster bombs
  • exempting CIA torturers from prosecution while imprisoning the employee who confirmed the agency’s use of waterboarding
  • targeting American Muslims with harassment, throwing the book at them for minor infractions and generally subjecting Muslims to a lower standard of due process

To be charitable, this may suggest that when Obama avers that you can have it both ways, he conceives of one way so hazily that adhering to it can be satisfied with rhetorical flourishes and half-measures. To a self-avowed pragmatist like Obama, “ideals” are ethereal things, impossible to measure and therefore not something that Serious people spend time on. And even as we have begun to suffer the effects of climate change, the worst is decades away – easily ignored in the face of supposedly more pressing matters.

More darkly, the insistence on not having to make a choice may really mean that the choice has already been made, and made casually. Obama seems to have infected others in the administration with this linguistic virus.  The day after he introduced Jewell, his nominee for CIA Director was spouting the following balderdash at his confirmation hearing:

What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other. It’s trying to optimize both of them.

John Brennan demonstrated his devotion to transparency in full later on:

SEN. RON WYDEN: In my letter to you three weeks ago, I noted that I’ve been asking for over a year to receive the names of any and all countries where the intelligence community has used its lethal authorities. If confirmed, would you provide the full list of countries to the members of this committee and our current staff?

JOHN BRENNAN: I know that this is an outstanding request on your part. During our courtesy call, we discussed it. If I were to be confirmed as director of CIA, I would get back to you, and it would be my intention to do everything possible to meet this committee’s legitimate interests and requests.

In other words, Senator Wyden, you’re not going to get anything.

This assertion of false choices masks another truth: officials rarely make a decision based only on just two competing priorities. When the president sends drones against “militants” in Pakistan, inevitably causing civilian casualties, he’s not thinking exclusively about security. He’s also thinking about the military contractors that build the drones, members of congress in districts where they’re built, and his own public persona as a president who stops at nothing to kill terrorists. Similarly, the dichotomy between a healthy economy and a healthy environment is genuinely false, because Obama’s also considering healthy profits for fossil fuel corporations, no matter how harmful they are to the long-term national interest. Jonathan Schell, discussing a new book about the Vietnam War, notes that LBJ made a momentous choice based on such outside concerns:

Domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have brought an end to the war. More and more, the war was seen to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of policy. This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. The primacy of domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?

Of course not. Only by acting through domestic politics can we alter politicians’ decision-making calculus. In order to do that, we must not be swayed by their happy-talk, choice-free rhetoric.


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