True leadership requires conviction. Conviction demands courage, and courage is the lifeblood of change. That is the narrative thread connecting every woman, man, and movement that has altered the course of history. At some point, principle trumps inaction, no matter the risks.
It is not an easy calculus, this business of knowing when and where a line must be drawn. The wisdom it requires is born of academic rigor, deep contemplation, and altruistic grace, qualities that too many authority figures and their loyalists conflate with pseudo-intellectualism, moral certitude, and blind faith.
President Barack Obama favors a pragmatic management strategy. At the core, this measured approach strives for conciliation and eschews bare-knuckled zeal, which the president’s ideological adversaries, whether they are camped out on Wall Street or swilling bitter tea, believe betrays cowardice or disingenuousness or both.
Another election is barreling down on us, and I believe those who dispassionately evaluate Obama’s first term will be in a position to acknowledge progress on a number of fronts, foreign and domestic. We would all do well to consider those accomplishments before spending our votes. When history judges the 44th president of the United States, however, I hold out hope that humanity will have evolved to a point where it recognizes and begins to atone for his administration’s most unforgivable sin: omission.
At the end of his second term, George W. Bush walked away from a financial crisis, two unwinnable wars, and a disillusioned American public. He also left behind a crime scene. As Kathryn Sikkink writes in this month’s cover story (page 40), there is clear proof that the United States government engaged in torture and cruel and unusual punishment of detainees. It’s also evident to anyone who is paying attention that Bush and his closest advisers, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, not only approved of these horrors, they enthusiastically sanctioned the abuse.
Candidate Obama condemned waterboarding and other criminal torments that we now comfortably refer to as “enhanced interrogation.” A constitutional law professor, he also vowed to uphold the highest ideals in that document, shutter Guantánamo Bay, and stop government-sanctioned persecution and murder.
Soon after inauguration day, the military establishment and affiliated agencies altered their public stance regarding torture and President Obama moved forward on a number of his promises regarding the restoration of human rights. At the same time, though, he resolved not to hold his predecessors accountable. And, in the wake of that appalling decision, the stain on the country’s international image is more permanent, the efficacy of torture is now a matter of debate, and war criminals like Dick Cheney brazenly defend (and profit from) their abuses of power.
Skeptics quickly concluded Obama’s claim to a higher moral ground was a mirage, carefully designed to cover his government’s bloody tracks in the world’s darkest corners. That the president has embraced the use of assassin squads, drone attacks, and extralegal rendition sites in countries such as Somalia (see page 45) has served to justify the cynicism. The administration’s inaction also cuts to the heart of its greatest weakness: Obama’s all too frequent unwillingness to get in front of a black-and-white issue and lead, matters of expediency and electability be damned.
Compromise is a laudable goal. Crimes against humanity, however, demand conviction and the courage to act on it.