What the Fourth of July Is All About

July 5, 2011

Fireworks explode over the White House. (Matt Campbell-Pool/Getty Images)

Last Thursday the Obama administration launched its new National Strategy for Counterterrorism, tailored to the post-bin Laden era. At first glance there seems to be a great deal for human rights advocates to welcome in this document.

Introducing the new strategy John Brennan, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, told his audience that the foundation of this new strategy would be a fundamental commitment to core American values and human rights:

“When we fail to abide by our values, we play right into the hands of al-Qa’ida, which falsely tries to portray us as a people of hypocrisy and decadence. Conversely, when we uphold these values it sends a message to the people around the world that it is America—not al-Qa’ida—that represents opportunity, dignity, and justice. In other words, living our values helps keep us safe.”

Brennan also went out of his way to praise the criminal justice system as:

“Our single most effective tool for prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing suspected terrorists—and a proven tool for gathering intelligence and preventing attacks.”

Indeed, Brennan’s whole speech was reminiscent of those heady days in January 2009 when it really seemed that an Obama administration would mark a genuine break with the Bush years and would restore an element of sanity and legality to US counterterrorism policies.

Then you take a step back. Having read all the fine words in the new strategy document, and digested Brennan’s thoughtful speech, you compare the administration’s rhetoric with the actual reality of its actions on the ground and you would be hard pressed to find a single core American value that the Obama administration hasn’t violated in the security arena.

This is a government that has hidden behind the state secrets privilege to avoid to compensating exonerated Canadian national Maher Arar and others abused and broken in illegal black sites and foreign jails; That has institutionalized indefinite detention and welched on its promise to close Guantanamo; That has stepped up targeted killing operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, revitalized Military Commissions and failed to fulfill its promise to put KSM and other alleged 9/11 co-conspirators on trial in federal court in New York.

In the past week alone the administration’s new nominee for Director of Central Intelligence, General David Petraeus, suggested during his confirmation hearing before the Senate that there might be a role for torture if the US was confronted with that old canard the ticking bomb scenario. And Special Prosecutor John Durham took the opportunity presented by the holiday weekend to announce discretely that he had decided that only 2 of the 101 cases of alleged CIA detainee abuse referred for his consideration merited any further investigation.

The speeches and policy pronouncements of Obama administration officials seem so divorced from reality that you start to wonder if Washington insiders are engaged in some elaborate game of ‘fantasy government’ where you score points for the content of your rhetoric rather than the content of your character.

One of the main themes of Brennan’s speech was the importance of resilience. ‘Resilience’ is THE new buzzword in US counterterrorism. But when people in Washington talk about resilience they are usually referring to hardening critical infrastructure such as transport facilities, power plants and cyber-networks but they rarely mention something just as critical: the resilience of our national values.

This Fourth of July week it is worth reflecting, amidst the competing attractions of patriotic pageantry, cook outs and fireworks, that the promise of America does not reside simply in the bricks and mortar of our great buildings but in the vision of a better life enshrined in our foundational documents.

Or as John Brennan put it in his speech:

“The most powerful weapons of all—which we must never forsake—are the values and ideals that America represents to the world.”

The problem with the Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy is not how it is crafted – it is, for the most part, a forward-looking document that reflects modern value-centered counter-insurgency doctrine and eschews macho posturing. The problem is that the administration has already failed to live up to the strategy articulated in it, and shows no sign of living it up to it in the future.

Blogging last month on the Foreign Policy website about US officials’ habit of talking up accountability overseas while ducking accountability at home, the influential Harvard political scientist Stephen M. Walt expressed his frustration at the routine hypocrisy of our foreign policy pronouncements:

“This is the sort of pious moralizing that drives lots of people in other countries crazy. The issue isn’t just our reluctance to put former top officials in the dock, it is also our relentless eagerness to preach to others about how they ought to behave, even when we are manifestly unwilling to live up to the same standards ourselves.”

Stephen Walt is a hard-nosed foreign policy realist but he understands that hard power is not the only building block of national security. You have to talk the talk AND walk the walk. The Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy document suggests that they understand that too.

The burning question this Fourth of July is whether administration officials will be able to channel their inner Founding Father before it’s too late and find sufficient backbone to fight for the values they profess to believe in.