Obama and Justice: Good Guy, Bad Guy, or Both?
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
I. Where’s the Vision?
President Barack Hussein Obama clearly is a man of his time, truly an American. He is both hated and beloved even by his own supporters and for the same reasons.
Two centuries ago, presidential inaugural speeches reflected the policy premises and practical parameters of the Founders’ call for justice. Since the time of the American Civil War, however, the very term justice has degenerated from a call for the absolute truth of human responsibilities and the resulting human rights into a radioactive word demanding punishment and vengeance against those who violate the status quo with all of its injustices.
In his Second Inaugural Address on January 22, 2013, President Obama used many stirring words over and over, like “freedom”, but he mentioned “justice” only once and then only as the last of four principles, namely, “tolerance, opportunity, human dignity, and justice”.
How different this was from his famous Cairo speech outlining his foreign policy premises early in his first term of office, when he anchored everything on justice seven times and reversed the priorities by calling for “justice, progress, tolerance, and dignity”. In the intervening years he has used the term justice only in the Old Testament sense of “bringing to justice” all of America’s enemies.
President Obama’s indifference to a coherent set of paradigmatic norms suggests a lack of vision, which makes him vulnerable to buffeting by the winds of self-interest groups and by the fickleness of popular politics.
President Reagan called for justice in the constructive sense, and his Lincolnesque call for an Industrial Homestead Act, subsequently reformulated into a Capital Homestead Act by the Center for Economic and Social Justice, may be the proverbial idea whose time has come.
Nevertheless, the last clear call in the traditional language of America’s Founders was by President Ford in his address on July 4, 1976. The Preamble of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 called for justice and then for five principles that flow from it, the last of them being “freedom”, because they are all interdependent and are products of justice as much as they are causes.
II. Bad Guy?
Now President Obama’s most ardent supporters warn against being duped again by cheap rhetoric. The Chairman of the Ramadhan Foundation, which holds large conferences backed by prime ministers and presidents, commented on President Obama’s record as follows in his new blog, which was launched the same day as President Obama’s Presidential Inauguration:
He cheated us, he lied, and what he promised were no more than cheap words. In four years of being the first Afro-American President this is what he achieved:
• Guantanamo bay still not closed and still people being held without trial.
• A totally biased stance on Israel.
• Illegal drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen killing thousands of innocent women, children, and elderly.
• More covert operations around the world.
• The murder of Osama bin Laden and lies to the world about what happened to him, instead of arresting and trying him.
• Unconditional support of dictators and terrorist regimes around the world, and the list is never-ending.
III. Good Guy?
A list of what President Obama has accomplished may be even longer, but the question is why many consider it to be so short. Is this Barack Obama’s personal fault?
One could argue that President Obama’s first term, and perhaps also his second, will prove to demonstrate the limits on the independence of presidents from the political pressures in Washington. President Obama’s record perhaps demonstrates the inherent limits of democracy, which Aristotle called the “worst form of government”, if it is founded on the positivist law of human will rather than on the natural laws evident in divine revelation, scientific observation of the created world, and our own human reason.
President Bush, Jr., was so angry at being a captive of the Israeli lobby that he sometimes could not sleep at night. President Reagan was the first truly revolutionary president in America since the time of its Founders, yet he never pursued any of the bold ideas in his call for a Second American Revolution, because he encountered an iron wall of opposition within his own party.
One could quote from some of the inspiring portions of his first major foreign policy address, to which I contributed and have cited in my books and articles, but its implementation was no different than President Obama’s. In his cabinet meetings President Reagan would advance one of his new ideas, but if a single person present would object to it he would never mention it again. One could call him a coward, but others would call him a pragmatic realist, which is what it takes to “succeed”, i.e., expand one’s power in order to maintain it in the Washington jungle.
Thomas Jefferson was a classic example of political pragmatics. One of the only two principles deleted from his draft of the American Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress was his condemnation of human slavery as the worst abomination known to man, yet he maintained his own slaves. Some historians say this was because he was heavily indebted and his debtors really owned the slaves, so he had no choice, but the practical result was hypocrisy.
The second deletion from his draft was his attack on King George of England. The Continental Congress deleted this because they were revolting against the mercantilist policies of the English Parliament, which treated the American colonists as colonial subjects rather than as Englishmen. They initially had no problem with loyalty to the king.
During the entire American Civil War from 1860 to 1865, the commanding general of the Northern forces, General Ulysses S. Grant, maintained slaves. Abraham Lincoln supported slavery until 1860, but he soon realized that calling for the abolition of slavery was a good political gambit to gain support for saving the Union from the decision of the southern states to secede as their only way to counter the industrial North’s colonial exploitation of the rural South.
IV. Justice as a National Vision
Perhaps the most prominent use of the term justice was President Obama’s statement in 2012 when he promised that the terrorists who attacked the American consulate in Benghazi “would experience American justice”. Confusing revenge with justice in the traditional American sense distorts the very concept of justice as the origin of the Great American Experiment and as the vision that guided its Founders in pursuing America’s possible role as a model of spiritual and moral leadership.
The Current Issues section of the book, The Muslim 500, for the Year 2012 addresses this issue in its lead article, Justice as Grand Strategy: The Missing Dimension in American Foreign Policy toward the Muslim World. In this article I quote the ancient Roman philosopher, Cicero, who wisely advised that before one begins to discuss anything whatsoever one should first define terms. This would apply to perspectives, paradigms of thought, and vision.
Perhaps the most illusive words in the world today are the terms “American” and “justice”. Was there, is there, and can there be an essence of America that constitutes its identity? This issue of identity is developed perhaps best by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his recent book, The Garden of Truth: Vision and Promise. He begins by generalizing that humans, both as individuals and as communities, act according to the image they have of themselves.
American foreign policy emphasizes freedom and democracy, but does this self-image translate universally? What about justice, particularly as a governing paradigm for action? Freedom and democracy both focus on the pursuit of individual human rights, but what about human responsibilities to pursue justice, from which human rights are merely a product?
Does official America have a grand strategy to pursue the image of America as a model of justice, which motivated America’s Founders? Or has America descended to the level where the ultimate objective is mere survival by preserving the status quo with all of its injustices. This inherently impossible quest has spelled the death of every civilization throughout history.
The major generic injustices today include, for example, the maintenance of artificial states divorced from organic nations composed of people with a common sense of their own history, common values in the present, and common hopes for the future.
Most dramatically these injustices include the inevitably escalating wealth gaps within and among countries that result from a system of money and banking based on privileging past accumulated wealth rather than on future profits from productive capital as collateral for credit, best explained at http://www.cesj.org and www.americanrevolutionaryparty.us. Reversing these wealth gaps requires institutional reform of money and banking through a third way beyond socialism and capitalism. As a by-product, this would address a major cause of global terrorism and terroristic counter-terrorism.
Unfortunately, the truth behind such injustices is hidden by such fictions as “nation building” and “democratic capitalism”.
The ironic dilemma of American foreign policy is that America’s attempt to maintain the alleged stability of the status quo by calling for freedom and democracy engenders an image of injustice throughout the world contrary to its own self-image. This was most clearly demonstrated by a survey conducted by a think-tank based in the United Emirates and presented at a think-tank in the Qatar Foundation, which recorded hundreds of the placards and graffiti in Syria during the so-called Arab Spring. All of them called for justice, but not a single one called for freedom and democracy.
Why this gross disconnect between American foreign policy and the rest of the world? There is a conflict of paradigms within every civilization, but in recent centuries the conflict between the spiritual and the material has been cast as a civilizational conflict between the “West and the Rest”, sometimes referred to as the “East and the Beast”. The conflict centers on the importance of justice.
Since justice resonates so well almost everywhere except in America and Europe, the question arises what is justice and what are true freedom and democracy.
American positivist law, which has reigned since the time of America’s Civil War in the mid-19th century, restricts the term justice to the enforcement of law created by human fiat. This differs from its opposite known as natural law, which defines justice as a system of spiritual and moral guidance based on a search for the noumenal, sapiential, perennial, and primordial truths that gave rise to the first human communities millions of years ago. When justice-based law has to be enforced its very purpose has failed.
Justice, as defined by the greatest Islamic scholars in opposition to the positivist law declared by various Muslim tyrants, is based upon and is a product of tawhid, which is untranslatable in English but refers to the coherence of the diversity in creation that points to the Oneness of its Creator
Within this ontological and epistemological approach to reality all of the maqasid al shari’ah are interdependent in peaceful harmony, so that each must reflect the others in a transcendent beauty. They may be divided into four principles of guidance and four of application. The guiding principles are haqq al din, respect for freedom of religion, haqq al nafs, respect for the sacredness of the human person, haqq al nasl, respect for the human community, and haqq al mahid, respect for the physical environment. The principles of application are haqq al hurriyah, respect for political self-determination, haqq al mal, respect for individual ownership of productive property, haqq al karama, respect for gender equity, and haqq al ‘ilm, respect for freedom of access to knowledge.
What then are true freedom and democracy? The ultimate freedom is freedom from ignorance of transcendent truth and justice. The ultimate in political freedom is not democracy as a technique of decision-making but recognition that democracy is a reliable guardian of human rights only in a “republic”, which by definition acknowledges that justice is not a product of human will but must be discovered from a higher source of truth.
This concept of justice and of freedom as its product is contrasted by Seyyed Hossein Nasr with the “outwardness, forgetfulness, selfishness, and falsehood” (page 6) that gave rise to “secular humanism, rationalism, empiricism, behaviorism, and deconstructivism” (page 34).
The essence of this amalgam of power, prestige, plutocracy and rampant pleasure as the ends of existence is necessarily the opposite of justice, because it seeks meaning superficially and contextually from the bottom up, from “facts on the ground”, rather than from the essence of the whole, that is, from what Nasr calls the “spiritual hermeneutics” (pages 14, 31, and 49) and consequent awareness of the reality embodied in the existentiation (pages 15, 18, 40, and 45) of the ultimate Beyond Being (pages 6, 38-42, and 50), known as al haqq, through the emanationist metaphysics of the Great Chain of Being (page 41), which is found in all the world religions.
To my knowledge, no-one has yet studied the connection between this source of ultimate truth and its manifestation in the system of justice in classical Islamic thought known as the maqasid or irreducible and universal principles and purposes of Islamic jurisprudence (the shari’ah).
The first person to develop both of these systems systematically was Imam Jafar al Siddiq in the second Islamic century. Exploring the common origin of these two systems, the spiritual and the jurisprudential, as a source of both truth and its application through justice might illuminate the missing dimension in 21st-century American foreign policy as first articulated by the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
This perhaps spiritually most profound author of the “Great American Experiment” in self-determination through one’s Ultimate Self, wrote, “No people can remain free unless they are properly educated. Education consists of teaching and learning virtues. And no people can remain virtuous unless both the personal and public lives of the individual person are infused with awareness and love of Divine Providence”, by which he meant God.
This wisdom is encapsuled in Surah 6:15 of the Qur’an, tama’at kalimatu rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The Word of your Lord is completed and perfected in truth and justice”. Jesus Christ, ‘alayhi al salam, spoke the truths so much needed in the world today, respectively in John 14:6 and 8:32, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and “the truth shall set you free”.
The challenge in a possible new era of a global awakening to a new international law of global ethics common to all the world religions is to rehabilitate the much abused terms “truth” and “justice” from radioactive words into the underlying premise and paradigm of policies designed to pursue peace, prosperity, and freedom through the interfaith harmony of compassionate justice for everyone.