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Obama's Moral Muse

Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, October 6, 2015, 7:34 AM

Nearly seven years into his presidency, we probably shouldn’t be asking who Barack Obama is any more. We should already know him well.

Yet at least as pertains to the drone program, we have yet to figure the man out.

Pete Souza/The White House

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Nearly seven years into his presidency, we probably shouldn’t be asking who Barack Obama is any more. We should already know him well.

Yet at least as pertains to the drone program, we have yet to figure the man out.

In his recent review of Scott Shane’s new book Objective Troy, Benjamin Wittes notes an odd structural quirk in Shane’s volume: his effort to juxtapose the lives of Anwar al-Awlaki and Barack Obama “as though theirs are parallel stories and developments.” Just as Shane wants to make sense of Awlaki’s transformation from a moderate cleric into a terrorist, he wants to somehow make sense of the president’s involvement in the drone program.

Shane is not alone in wanting to understand the moral inner life of a president who so unexpectedly became a strong proponent of stand-off military force in the context of counterterrorism efforts around the globe:

  • Daniel Klaidman has referred to Obama as “Hamlet-like” on matters of national security and portrayed him as deeply conflicted about drone strikes;

  • Jane Mayer has written on “the contrast between Bush’s swagger and Obama’s anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society”; and

  • Tom Junod has remarked on the president’s “ability to make himself representative of moral struggle.”

Nor is Shane himself new to such efforts. His 2012 New York Times article with Jo Becker on the drone program, which serves as one of the nuclei of Objective Troy’s study of the president, portrays Obama as an isolated figure gripped with struggle over the moral stresses of his involvement in killing.

Everyone here seems to be searching for Obama’s moral muse.

I think I’ve found him: Creon.

No, not the Creon of the Greek tragedian, Sophocles. I’m talking here about the Creon of a 1944 rewrite of the ancient Greek Antigone by the French playwright Jean Anouilh—a play which turned on her head Sophocles’ eponymous heroine and made an iconic symbol of principled resistance into an annoying brat. Conversely, Anouilh’s play also transformed Antigone’s tyrant uncle, Creon, into a weary but basically sympathetic figure saddled with the obligation of making what we might call “hard national security choices.”

For those who don’t remember the story of Antigone, here’s the briefest of synopses: Creon is the new king of Thebes, having taken power after a brutal war between Antigone’s brothers concluded with both brothers dead and the city decimated. To reestablish order and protect Thebes from further chaos, Creon decrees a hero’s burial for the brother who fought for the city and declares that the corpse of the traitorous brother will be left to rot. Antigone, however, takes action to bury him despite Creon’s orders. Creon decrees her death, and she faces execution rather than repenting her crime against the state.

While Sophocles portrays Creon as a brittle dictator and Antigone as an admirable, if arrogant, dissident, Anouilh’s play takes a different view. His Antigone is equally obstinate yet strikingly immature, while his Creon is still dictatorial, yet pragmatic and weary. In the play’s introduction, Anouilh’s Chorus provides the following description of the beleaguered tyrant:

He is playing a difficult game: he has become a leader of men. ... Sometimes, in the evening, when he’s worn out, he wonders whether it’s not pointless, being a leader of men. Whether it’s not a sordid business that ought to be left to others less … sensitive than himself. Then, next morning, he’s faced with particular problems to be solved, and he just gets up without more ado, like a laborer starting a day’s work.

It’s a strikingly modern description of leadership. And we might think of the play as a whole as a piece of national security fan-fiction—a reworking of Sophocles into a meditation on the political and moral decisions that national security requires of leaders.

The play’s politics have long been a subject of debate. Written in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, it has been interpreted variously as a condemnation of Vichy France, an apology for it, and a depiction of Vichy’s ambiguous relationship with the fascist movement.

What is indisputable is that Anouilh portrays Creon’s position with a great deal more moral complexity than does Sophocles. As Creon sees it, he must lie to the people (he reveals to Antigone late in the play that he has no idea which brother’s corpse was which, and dispatched the bodies randomly and for symbolic political purposes alone). He must also violate deep religious prohibitions, and, finally, kill his niece—all this in order to protect his city.

Creon’s air of solitary responsibility—his willingness to make hard choices and his pained awareness of his obligation to make those choices—has a familiar ring: he sounds strikingly similar to President Obama when the latter speaks on national security issues. This confluence of Creon’s and the president’s self-presentations offers a lens through which to view the administration’s moral approach to national security policy.

Compare Anouilh’s solitary, “sensitive,” responsible Creon with the portrait of President Obama sketched in Objective Troy and in Becker and Shane’s initial article. In both, the president appears to be intimately involved with the drone program, approving one by one the names of individuals to be targeted. His involvement stems from a desire to personally put to use the moral philosophy contained in Catholic philosophy on just war. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility” for drone strikes, and furthermore believes that “his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes,” Becker and Shane write.

The reader is left with an image of President Obama as practical philosopher, alone in the Oval Office and puzzling over the legal, moral, and philosophical difficulties of killing. Like Creon, the president personally bears the heavy weight of his responsibility—or so he says.

After describing Obama’s role in the drone program, Objective Troy goes on to note the president’s Nobel address on the topic of “A Just and Lasting Peace.” Obama discusses the potential “moral force of non-violence,” and then goes on:

I know there's nothing weak—nothing passive—nothing naïve—in the creed and lives of Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King…. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.… To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The president has made clear his admiration for the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, and his statement reflects a very Niebuhrian understanding of the use of force as simultaneously necessary and a cause for concern and sorrow. Implicit in his description of himself as facing “the world as it is,” is a contrast between that world and the world as it ought to be—and as such, a contrast between President Obama himself, who must face the world as it is, and figures like Gandhi, who need only to face the world and demand that it come to resemble their more idealized vision of it.

Now consider Anouilh’s Creon, who makes a similar point, positioning himself as a sorrowful pragmatist to contrast with Antigone’s idealism—what she describes as her desire to “say no” to impurity and compromise. Riffing on Plato’s famous “ship of state” metaphor, Creon declares:

Someone has to say yes. Someone has to steer the ship. It’s letting in water on all sides. It’s full of crime and stupidity and suffering. … Do you think there’s time to debate whether you say yes or no, to wonder whether some day the price isn’t going to be too high, whether afterwards you’re going to be able to call yourself a man again? No! You grab the tiller, you stand up to the mountains of water, you shout an order—and if you’re attacked you shoot the first comer.

Creon, like Obama, presents himself as understanding the necessity of action—perhaps violent action—to protect the “ship of state” from danger.

In both Obama’s implicit comparison of himself to those who are able to hold out for the world as it ought to be, and Creon’s explicit comparison of himself to Antigone’s passionate but rigid rejection of any concession, lies the suggestion that the work of political leadership necessarily requires a degree of moral compromise. While the necessity of the use of force reflects what Obama calls “the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” the use of force itself also reemphasizes what Niebuhr saw as humanity’s fallen nature. Power, Niebuhr argues, “cannot be wielded without guilt.” To use power is to be guilty, or at the very least to be anguished over the possibility of guilt.

We can see echoes of this thinking in Obama’s self-presentation. Even if he is nowhere close to guilty in the legal sense, and even if his actions benefit a worthwhile end, his speeches and demeanor convey a pervasive moral struggle: he is interested in moving us to understand not only the difficulty of his decisions, but also the moral anguish he feels in making them. Take a look at his landmark May 2013 speech at the National Defense University:

It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live. ... But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.

(And the Chorus intones: “Sometimes, in speeches, when Obama is feeling criticized and worn out, he wonders whether it’s not pointless. Then, next morning, he’s faced with particular problems to be solved, and he just gets up without more ado.”)

Indeed, Creon similarly wears his moral pain on his sleeve, displaying an excruciating awareness of the compromises that kingship requires. He is, to use Anouilh’s term, “sensitive.” Over the course of the play, he repeatedly tries to guide Antigone to see both the depth of his moral struggle and the concomitant strength of his commitment to his city:

ANTIGONE: You’re loathsome.

CREON: Yes, child. It’s my job. Whether or not that job should be done is a matter for discussion. But if it has to be done, it has to be done like this.

ANTIGONE: Why do you have to do it?

CREON: One morning I woke up King of Thebes.Though heaven knows there were things in life I loved better than power.

ANTIGONE: Then you should have said no!

CREON: I might have. But suddenly I felt like a workman refusing a job. It didn’t seem right. I said yes.

“There you are,” he goes on, in the play’s last scene, “face to face with what’s to be done. You can’t just fold your arms and do nothing. They say it’s dirty work. But if you don’t do it, who will?”

Like Creon, Obama often seems acutely aware of his involvement in this “dirty work” and weighed down by a Niebuhrian sense of both the sinfulness and the necessity of his wielding power.

This moral confluence of Creon and Obama sheds a certain light on our cultural understanding of Obama’s relationship with the national security state. We place a perhaps unmerited focus on President Obama’s interior life in his leadership of the drone program. It’s a huge bureaucracy that manages the program, after all, not a single person. Yet we have a strong desire to decipher the president as an individual. This is partly because Article II of the Constitution ultimately puts him, and him alone, in charge. But it’s also convenient to think of a killing that has an individual target as having an individual targeter.

Obama’s performance of the public task of anguish, like Creon’s, focuses attention on his solitary psyche as the theater in which the drama of drone warfare plays itself out. We want a Creon as a vessel for expressing our own ambivalence about what we, as a nation, are doing through this lethal tool. And Obama is happy to oblige. We all feel better knowing that the person at the top is thinking about these decisions hard enough to be anguished about them. And having a philosopher-president in that role gives us confidence that our Creon is adequately upset—so we don’t have to be.

President Obama, consciously or subconsciously, has tapped into the enduring archetype of leaders as anguished, isolated figures shouldering terrible responsibility. Whether or not that archetype is true to life in Obama’s case is anyone’s guess. After all, Shane reports that the decision to target Awlaki was, according to the president, “an easy one.”

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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