In running for president in 2007 and 2008, candidate Barack Obama quickly learned the national security language required to be a ‘serious’ candidate for President. The Democrats suffered from a lack of trust on this question and the Obama campaign worked diligently to overcome this (see the 2008 article by his adviser Sam Power on this issue in NYRB). Part of this necessary political socialization was comfort with the idea that the President should be prepared and ready to use force. The President, as Commander in Chief, issues orders that may lead to people dying. The standard rhetorical expression involved the scenario of sending US soldiers ‘into harms way.’ Campaign mores required this be readily evoked (the GWOT mantra was that the US was “at war” after all) and described as the most serious responsibility that befell a ‘commander in chief.’ But there was an inverse logic too. Presidents should be prepared to kill the enemies of the United States, to ‘take the shot’ when a ‘high value target’ became visible. Justifying this logic was the long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, public enemy number one, and his associates. Obama outflanked his opponents, initially Hillary Clinton and later John McCain, by embracing the necessity of a policy of ‘targeted strikes’ against these associates.
Four days after Obama was inaugurated, there was a ‘targeted strike’ (sic) in Pakistan that killed 19 civilians, including four children. Four years later, President Obama again took the oath of office, as targeted killing strikes were recorded the Saturday and Sunday before and on the Monday of his inauguration. During his first four year term, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that 4,700 people have been killed by so-called “drone strikes” including an American citizen and his teenage son (see an excellent TRMS segment on this here).
How does the constitutional lawyer president justify this? (Sam Power’s July 2008 article, after all, ends: “As a constitutional lawyer, Obama is in a unique position to argue that as commander in chief, he will never hold himself or his advisers above the law”). As anyone who has followed this knows, his policy is a product of White House deliberations and debate with, in particular, his senior counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, a former deputy director of the CIA during the tenure of Bush 43. Brennan, who like many of Obama’s inner staff is Irish-American, is now up for confirmation as Director of the CIA. The hearings begin tomorrow, and they provide a rare moment for public debate on a policy that is deeply controversial and manifestly contrary to the US Constitution, not to mention the US effort to refurbish its image in the wake of debacles of the Bush years.
For me, the interesting academic question is the degree to which the ‘war on terror’ has an entrapping logic (Ian Lustik’s book on this was an excellent point of departure but the issue can be pushed much further). Is there an institutional machinery, and culture-wide rhetorical logic that is impossible to switch off? Is it the case that no matter who is president, the CiC job description and political necessities require a permanent war on terror in this fashion from the skies? Does the technical capacity create a compelling desire to use it? Can the global war on terror ever be pronounced over? Can it be switched off? How? Is this simply the manifestation of US hegemonic decline, war weariness, or the ‘limited liability’ side of its geopolitical culture? Obama’s nomination of Brennan to the CIA could, in fact, be a bid to start this process, to have one of the agency’s own shut down its occluded drone program, and transition this activity over to the more nominally accountable US DoD. Or is too generous a reading? Lets see.
David Cole suggests some questions that should be asked (subscription required).