WASHINGTON, January 8, 2011—Promises abound in elections. Then-Senator Obama promised a lot in 2008, catering to the yearnings of an electorate disillusioned with the American political system. He was the unifier, the inspirational personage representing the solution to a failed decade guided by a rowdy Texan in the White House who squandered America’s capital in foreign lands.
The next four years, and surely the next eight, would see the start of a robust economic recovery, ushering in a dramatic decline in poverty and, of course, a resurgence of confidence in America’s position in the world. None of these have materialized. In fact, in each case the opposite result has been obtained, pointing to an increasingly appropriate referendum of what President Obama so aptly called a one term proposition at the inception of his presidency.
Throughout his first term, Obama has learned much, whether or not that knowledge satisfies or angers his staunchly liberal base and his detractors. As his presidency has progressed, however, the issue on which he has shifted course most dramatically from his campaign rhetoric is that of counterterrorism.
Pre-January 20, 2009, there were grand vows of shuttering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and dramatically bettering relations with the Muslim world. Obama added endless assurances that he’d improve the perception of America throughout the world, as if this were the number one job of the Commander-in-Chief. And because President Bush had abandoned any concern for this in the course of an utterly disastrous foreign policy and national security strategy—at least according to Obama’s tale of what would, under him, be described as a foreign policy dictated by “a new spirit, not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence”—Obama appeared to plant the seeds for a more internationalist agenda. What happened?
Woe to the peaceniks and the gullible progressives who had reveled in dreams of a dramatic shift from the Manichean Mr. Bush to the judicious Mr. Obama.
Today veteran Democrats ignore their previously boisterous calls for a less aggressive foreign policy. They express at best a timid concern for the ironic reality that a president from their own party—one that has over the years claimed a monopoly on representing the downtrodden and the ideals of democracy—is implementing the most expansive targeted killing campaign in the history of the nation. The scope of drone strikes has increased from one country—Pakistan—under big, bad Bush, to five more—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—under Obama’s Camelot. In number, too, the strikes have grown significantly, from 42 under Bush to nearly 250—just in Pakistan—under Obama.
Secrecy like that for which the Bush White House was criticized enshrouds the current administration’s drone campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The president orders the killing of selected individuals—U.S. citizens included—anywhere in the world without checks on his executive authority or oversight of any nature. Washington is well aware of this filthy secret, yet only a few who once indulged the president’s legal views now openly critique his decision to cast aside his oath to uphold the law of the land as he tramples the sovereignty of those nations ravaged by the decisions of Bush, who supposedly embarrassed America with his machismo.
What was to be the most transparent administration in the history of the country—in Obama’s own words an “administration … committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government”—has resisted disclosing any details about the structure of the drone program, or even the names of those who have been assassinated. Colin Powell was isolated within the Bush White House for his dissent on the Iraq War? Well, thus was the fate of the director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, fired promptly by Obama last year following his efforts to raise debate within the White House on the drone program.
Unmanned successes abroad? Undoubtedly. Gone are the days of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. And relegated to oblivion are hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates throughout the Greater Middle East.
But well and alive are claims of a nuanced counterterrorism strategy driven by the needs of the day. Apparently, it’s not that Obama, former University of Chicago constitutional law professor extraordinaire, fails to stand for human rights or the rule of law. It’s just that he finds sacrificing some of these conveniently frivolous fixtures necessary to perform his most important task: protecting the country and her allies.
Simply put, in his own interpretation, Obama embarked on an expansion of the drone campaign to protect the country and her allies. He did what he thought was right and strategically effective. After all, increasingly advanced technology in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles prevents the loss of American blood while efficiently taking out scores of the enemies of America and her allies.
Despite the quantifiable successes of the drone campaign, what should puzzle every witness to the past three years is the brazen nature of Obama’s eager criticism of Bush’s handling of counterterrorism. The president and his proponents continue to claim that Bush-era policies like waterboarding and Guantanamo undermined our security, violated fundamental American legal doctrine, and crossed an historic line of morality. But the same criticisms can just as easily be cast upon Obama’s own counterterrorism strategy. Admittedly, drones are one aspect of the administration’s strategy, but they do, after all, kill, not torture.
Obama has, by his own standards, failed in his vision to “lead in the observance of human rights, and the rule of law, and civil rights and due process.” His expansion of the drone campaign, in conjunction with his extension of the Patriot Act—roving wiretaps and the infamous library provision quite intact—despite his vehement opposition to it while serving in the Senate; his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which extends the Guantanamo transfer restrictions and codifies the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial; and his apparent acceptance of signing statements to modify the meaning of duly enacted laws, for which he lambasted Bush, have reinforced a well-established lesson: For Obama, the constitution is sacrosanct, except when he feels it’s not in the best interest of the country. To move from a position of claiming that he would not “use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress” to using them 20 times already is telling.
A world of difference—no, change—executive power certainly does make.
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