Jimmy Carter goes after President Obama: on morality in national security

Jimmy Carter has always been an outspoken advocate for human rights and peace in American foreign policy. He has stated that one of the most important goals of his presidency was to keep America at peace, to never send American troops into combat. And he has repeatedly explained how he views this commitment and his advocacy in this area as a direct outworking of his Evangelical Christian faith.

One thing that can be said for Carter is that he has not allowed his advocacy to be dominated by a spirit of partisanship. A few days ago Carter wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that criticizes America for its continuing use of tactics like assassination, drone strikes, surveillance without warrant, torture, and detention without the possibility of trial. Carter claims that the United States is in violation of at least 10 of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And while he does not name President Obama, we all know who our commander-in-chief is. Carter is not going after George W. Bush.

Carter writes,

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications…

Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.

Meanwhile, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now houses 169 prisoners. About half have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers.

Carter believes that all of this places America in direct violation of its most basic commitments to the values of peace, justice, and freedom. What’s more, he thinks that it damages our own national security because it alienates hearts and minds.

I do not want to take issue here with Carter’s particular allegations, although persuasive rejoinders might be offered to his various criticisms. The fact is, the issues Carter is raising (and has been raising for a long time) are serious, and even if we disagree with his conclusions, we should at least find the problems troubling. No one should be happy about the situation at Guantanamo Bay, or about assassinations, or warrantless surveillance.

The question is, however, are these evils necessary to a certain extent, given the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens. After all, it is not like terrorism is a phantom threat that has never taken any American lives. I wish Carter would acknowledge the enormous difficulties involved in any military conflict, particularly one in which the enemy routinely hides behind international institutions and practices that protect civilians, using America’s own national ideals against it. As President Obama has discovered, condemning Guantanamo Bay and promising to close it is one thing. Managing to do so while protecting American security is another.

Let’s keep one thing straight. The primary task of government is to protect the people under its charge. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr so eloquently insisted, this often requires government to get its hands dirty, to do things that under any other conditions we would say are wrong, and that even under these conditions make us uneasy. It is hard for a Christian to be a magistrate or a soldier. Luther himself (the great two kingdoms advocate!) said that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven. Nevertheless, governments are accountable to God to fulfill their basic task. All the rights and freedoms in the world don’t take away from that basic obligation.

To be sure, I do not think the American government should ordinarily practice torture, detain persons without the possibility of a trial, spy on American citizens without warrant, or needlessly endanger the lives of civilians. On the other hand, President Obama’s tactical use of drones and his authorization of the assassination of terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden strikes me as being eminently within the parameters of basic just war theory. No practice of war or military conflict is above challenge, and governments may never do wrong that good may come of it, but as Carter surely knows, working out what this means in practice is an awfully difficult task. Rather than shouting out UN platitudes, I wish Carter would acknowledge this. We surely need to be reminded about our most basic moral commitments, but we could also use the realism Carter may (or may not) have gained from his experience in the White House.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 28, 2012, in Just War, Rights and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Jimmy Carter goes after President Obama: on morality in national security.

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