A strangely impersonal stepping back has become a characteristic mark of this president’s frequent invocations of high moral purpose.
When one hears a phrase like “It needs to be closed,” one cannot help recalling the imperative but evasive construction of sentences such as “Mubarak must go” and “Gaddafi must go” and “Assad must go.” The president talks as if he were a being who has considerable powers of action which he has chosen not to use, but which he trusts others, on “reflection,” to take up somehow in order to embody his intuitions in deeds.
We have now had two successive presidents who dealt in a most anomalous way with personal intentions and evil actions. Bush did intend the evil he performed (as when he asked of the supposed high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah, “Who authorized putting him on pain medication?”), but one had the impression that he also did not know the meaning of what he did. This came out in his choice to delegate the major powers of action during the first six years of his presidency to the office of the vice president.
By contrast, Obama gives the impression that he does not intend the evil he performs, but powerful others want it so much he cannot say no. He recognizes what this means, from the point of view of right and wrong, but he thinks that his having not intended it, a preference sometimes telegraphed by a public demur, absolves him of responsibility.
It is a perversion and a defection of the will. And it fits with his being a winner — someone who likes very much to win, far beyond knowing why he wants it so much — and also being a quitter. In many ways, Obama is as odd and disturbing a personality as Richard Nixon: another clever, arrogant, and isolated man who came to place tremendous value on secrecy and for whom, as with Obama, secrecy had its natural climax in secret wars.
In Obama’s case, too, as in Nixon’s, the exorbitant love of secrecy springs from a desire not to be judged. It has its source in an almost antinomian assurance that there is no one in the world who knows enough to judge him.
There is, however, a respect in which Obama has become a stranger president than Nixon. What after all are we to make of the bizarre alternation of the commands to kill and the journeys to comfort the killed?
As this president has lengthened the shadow of American power in Arab lands and made it hard for someone like Farea Al-Muslimi to persuade his countrymen that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, he has made serial visits to comfort Americans mourning the dead in the mass murders in Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown, and in Boston.
None of these speeches has carried a hint of the perception that there could be a link between American violence at home and abroad. The role of this president — a president of safety and protection rather than a president of liberty and the rule of law — is dismaying in itself. But there is something actively morbid in the dramatic assumption of grief counseling as his major role in public, even as he continues in secret his wars against people about whom he will not speak to Americans except in platitude.