Obama and Terror: The Hovering Questions

Leslie Pratt/US Air Force
A Predator drone, armed with Hellfire missiles under each wing, flying a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, 2009


In March 2010, the ACLU ran an advertisement in which President Barack Obama’s face morphs into that of President George W. Bush. A few months later, in a report on the first eighteen months of Obama’s term, the civil liberties group charged that Obama was in danger of establishing a “new normal” by entrenching the “worst Bush-era policies.” According to Daniel Klaidman’s new account of President Obama’s struggles to square national security and the rule of law, Kill or Capture, “no criticism seemed to sting more than when liberals accused him of selling civil liberties down the river.”

But it’s not just liberals who make this charge. Jack Goldsmith, a conservative Harvard law professor who served as a lawyer in the Defense Department and the Justice Department under President Bush, opens his new book, Power and Constraint, by contending that “in perhaps the most remarkable surprise of his presidency, Obama continued almost all of his predecessor’s counterterrorism policies.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer goes further, accusing Obama of blatant hypocrisy:

You go around the world preening about how America has turned a new moral page by electing a president profoundly offended by George W. Bush’s belligerence and prisoner maltreatment, and now you’re ostentatiously telling the world that you personally play judge, jury, and executioner to unseen combatants of your choosing, and whatever innocents happen to be in their company.

More pithily, Stephen Colbert recently remarked that “rather than sending prisoners to Gitmo, [President Obama] is taking the high road by sending them to their maker.”

As Jo Becker and Scott Shane recently noted in a May 2012 New York Times article reviewing Obama’s national security record, “nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record.” One thing is certain: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will not be able to accuse Obama of being soft on security. Obama’s administration not only killed Osama bin Laden, but claims to have killed twenty-two of al-Qaeda’s thirty top leaders. Obama has radically escalated drone strikes, continued military detention without charge and military commissions for trying terrorists, prosecuted more government officials for leaks than all prior presidents combined, maintained the discretion to render suspects to third countries, and opposed efforts to hold US officials accountable for authorizing torture of terror suspects.

How should we assess President Obama’s first term as a national security president from the standpoint of civil liberties and the rule of law? Klaidman and Goldsmith offer very different judgments. Klaidman, a Newsweek reporter, sees a president wracked by indecision, torn between his commitment to legal ideals and his political pragmatism. Goldsmith maintains that President Obama has largely continued his predecessor’s policies, because by the time he took office the system of checks…

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