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Debating Greenwald and The Murkiness of War

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By Bob Cesca: Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday and the issue of the president's targeted predator drone killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki came up. Naturally, since it's one of his pet topics, Glenn Greenwald spoke against the assassination, while Sullivan and Maher spoke in support of it.

Greenwald's ongoing defense of Al-Awlaki is based on the fact that the al-Qaeda operative was born in the United States, and therefore, as a U.S. citizen, he ought to be somehow grabbed and afforded due process by our justice system.

I have some very strong views on this issue -- all of which circulate around the general idea that the moral and legal aspects of war, like politics, are never black-and-white. It's entirely judged in shades of gray. I'll get to that momentarily. Meanwhile, after watching the debate on Real Time, I posted the following item on my blog and added the following remarks:

As soon as someone takes up arms against the United States, they’ve entered a field of battle, and a war, of sorts, is engaged. Likewise, if a criminal aims a deadly weapon at a soldier or law enforcement officer, that criminal runs the risk of being fatally shot — and it’s perfectly legal to do so.

While that example isn’t exactly a 1:1 analogy, since Al-Awlaki wasn’t literally aiming a weapon at an American when he was killed, another point of comparison is the U.S. Civil War in which half the nation seceded and took up arms against the U.S. military and president. Should Lincoln, who considered the Confederates to still be Americans, have spared the 250,000 rebels who were killed during that war after they collectively threatened the stability of the United States? Clearly, and for a variety of reasons, the U.S. military effort during the Civil War, while brutal, was justified. Similarly, Sullivan brought up the American-joining-the-Nazi-Army concept.

I agree with Greenwald that due process and justice is crucial — but only in criminal cases where the assailant isn’t engaged in a shooting war against American citizens and soldiers.

Glenn Greenwald responded on Twitter and the following conversation took place:

GLENN: You've embraced the core Bush/Yoo Terror theory: no rights for **accused combatants, and the President alone decides. Congrats

@PHPRESS: Bob hates our freedom. He'd prefer a totalitarian state with a powerful dictator, the tiny penis syndrome.

GLENN: Only when there's a Democrat in office - he'll discover the Constitution again when there's a Big Bad Republican

ME: So I've abandoned the Constitution for party politics? This kind of kneejerk reaction is poisoning the debate, Glenn.

GLENN: I just explained the *substance in the last tweet - you`ve embraced the Bush/Yoo theory - now that there's a Dem

ME: No. Bush/Yoo justified torture, rendition, wiretaps, suspension of habeas etc - all of which I oppose, irrespective of party.

GLENN: Hilarious: it's OK to KILL ****accused combatants w/o judicial review, but not to eavesdrop on them or detain them w/o it

ME: There's a clear distinction! Al-Awlaki is ONE instance. Torture, wiretaps, etc are happening secretly on a widespread basis.

GLENN: Wheter you admit it or not, you`re arguing Bush/Yoo: accused combatants have no rights, and the President alone decides

ME: No, there are shades of gray here and you know it. Eg: you defended Ron Paul on terrorism even though he voted for the '01 AUMF and introduced HR3076.

ME: War, like politics, is murky. We can justify Hiroshima but condemn Dresden. Praise FDR's liberalism but condemn Japanese camps.

On a certain level, I understand Greenwald's perspective here. He's against war. It's always difficult -- if not impossible -- for a pacifist to justify military fatalities of any kind. In Greenwald's view, the Al-Awlaki killing is additionally heinous due to the man's citizenship and the governmental powers used to bring him down. That said, war and how it's prosecuted is not unlike politics -- only with funny hats and firearms. It's a muddy, murky endeavor with massive gray areas where morality (or immorality) literally collides with human bodies.

The leaders who play the game operate on the fringes of what's possible, practical and acceptable. As I referenced above, Lincoln's actions during the American Civil War would have absolutely forced Greenwald into apoplectic shock. There was the suspension of habeas corpus even though suspending the writ is assigned to Congress in Article I. Subsequently, there was Lincoln's attempt to arrest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney who objected to Lincoln's suspension of the writ -- an action that would have precipitated a massive constitutional crisis around the separation of powers. There was Lincoln's authorization of "total war" -- civilians became fair game for General William Tecumseh Sherman and other commanders. American civilians.

The end result was victory for the United States, the Constitution and for the American democratic experiment.

Fast forward to World War II and FDR, the great liberal president of modern times, also careened well beyond the bounds of what we would consider to be decent, moral and constitutional. Developing the atom bomb alone -- the mere development of it, much less the use of it by President Truman -- was a trespass far more serious than anything Presidents Bush or Obama have done in pursuit of terrorists. Couple that with the firebombing of civilians and the indefinite detention of Japanese-Americans and, again, there would have been a major freakout had "Glennzilla" existed at that point.

None of this is meant to forgive the questionable policies of the executive branch in wartime. I'm simply drawing from historical examples to illustrate the murkiness of war.

Clearly many of the actions initiated by the Bush administration should never have been engaged. Torture, wiretapping and data-mining, suspension of habeas, extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention are blights on the American record, and the same goes for the several policies that have been continued by the Obama team. But when we're engaged in military action against a defined enemy -- al-Qaeda -- killing its leadership, be it Osama Bin Laden or Al-Awlaki, on the world's battlefield is one of those fringe actions that, while not savored, are necessary. If you participate in plots to kill Americans in a declared war, you run the risk of being killed in retaliation. That's a matter of war: killing or capturing the enemy before they do the same to you.

As I tweeted to Greenwald, Ron Paul, for all the praise heaped upon him by Greenwald as a anti-terror-war hero, sponsored HR3076 which authorized the raising of a mercenary army to capture or kill Bin Laden and al-Qaeda terrorists. This was Ron Paul in legislative action and not Ron Paul the campaigner. Very, very murky.

On the "kill the enemy" note, Greenwald attempted to catch me in some hypocrisy when he tweeted, "Hilarious: it's OK to KILL ****accused combatants w/o judicial review, but not to eavesdrop on them or detain them w/o it." Yes, okay. It's a contradiction but it's intellectually honest. In all wars, it's permissible to kill the enemy even though it's also a crime torture the enemy. In one case, the enemy is dead. In latter case, the enemy is totally alive but in considerable pain. Death is the acceptable option. Weird how that works, but it's true.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting here that given the choice (and I underscore given the choice -- in other words, if we have to do something), I'd rather have unmanned drones engaged in targeted strikes than to send soldiers into hostile areas in the context of yet another hot war.

Admittedly, this all seems cloudy. It always does. There are very few absolutes. And it's only made cloudier when broad assumptions are made and black-and-white generalities are hurled at people with whom we share some common ground. If Greenwald and his acolytes were aware of my writing, they would know that I'm not an across-the-board apologist for the Obama administration. I strongly believe the president has been successful and historic given the divisiveness in Washington, but much like every president before him, he's made mistakes. It's part of the job. And I've attempted to evaluate the mistakes and successes based on historical precedent, as well as their impact on American democracy. Yet instead of debating the murky areas of warfare and politics point-by-point, we too often end up debating the other participant's character, and unfair assumptions are injected into the discourse -- he or she is an "Obama lover" and so on.

I simply wanted to hear what Greenwald has to say about HR3076 or FDR's handling of World War II or Lincoln's handling of the Civil War as it relates to modern events. But mainly, and more than anything else, I want to know how the president was expected to arrest Al-Awlaki without risking American casualties -- a very real possibility when we're talking about Greenwald's alternative capture-and-arrest plan. Which plan is better: Killing Al_Awlaki outright; arresting him and risking the death or deaths of American soldiers; or simply ignoring the al-Qaeda problem?

If we can have that discussion, I'm all in.

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