Essay — From the June 2015 issue

What Went Wrong

Assessing Obama’s legacy

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To declare the argument over in the midst of a debate is to confess that you are lacking in resources. This defect, a failure to prepare for attacks and a corresponding timidity in self-defense, showed up in a capital instance in 2009. Obama had vowed to order the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay as soon as he became president. He did give the order. But as time passed and the prison didn’t close of its own volition, the issue lost a good deal of attraction for him. The lawyer Obama had put in charge of the closure, Greg Craig, was sacked a few months into the job (on the advice, it is said, of Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel). Guantánamo had turned into baggage the president didn’t want to carry into the midterm elections. But the change of stance was not merely politic. For Obama, it seemed, a result that failed to materialize after a command had issued from his pen was sapped of its luster.

Yet as recently as March of this year, Obama spoke as if the continued existence of the prison were an accident that bore no relation to his own default. “I thought we had enough consensus where we could do it in a more deliberate fashion,” he said. “But the politics of it got tough, and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it’s not who we are as a country and it’s used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists.” One may notice a characteristic evasion built in to the grammar of these sentences. “The politics” (abstract noun) “got tough” (nobody can say why) “and people” (all the people?) “got scared” (by whom and with what inevitability?). Adverse circumstances “set in” (impossible to avoid because impossible to define). In short, once the wrong ideas were planted, the president could scarcely have done otherwise.

The crucial phrase is “the path of least resistance.” In March 2015, in the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession. It is one thing to know about yourself that in the gravest matters you follow the path of least resistance. It is another thing to say so in public. Obama was affirming that for him there could not possibly be a question of following the path of courageous resistance. He might regret it six years later, but politics set in, and he had to leave Guantánamo open — a symbol of oppression that (by his own account) tarnished the fame of America in the eyes of the world.

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has written on civil liberties and America’s wars for the New York Review of Books and other publications. His most recent book is Moral Imagination (Princeton University Press).

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