Obama’s Journey To The Dark Side

In the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic Party candidate was eager to exploit a speech he had made 6 years earlier in Chicago, in which he lambasted the administration of George W. Bush and its ‘armchair, weekend warriors,’ determined to ‘shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost.’ The state senator utilized a rhetorical device he had been building toward, repeatedly challenging, “You want a fight, President Bush?” before listing a series of priorities that risked being overlooked following an invasion of Iraq: the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda; the need to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to do their work; the need to find peace in the Middle East and the development of a new energy policy.  The candidate’s true stance on the war, however, might be gleaned from an unguarded moment during the 2004 Democratic National Convention at which he sprang to national prominence. As noted by Heilemann and Halperin in their 2010 text Game Change, he remarked “there’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The longer Barack Obama is president, the more evident this remark becomes.

This week has witnessed a remarkable turn of events as the Obama administration has been forced to release a legal finding that has, quite literally, granted the president the power of life and death over seemingly all humanity. Whilst it has long been apparent that the U.S. was willing to engage in an increasingly robust use of drone strikes against an ever-increasing number of foreign-born targets, there was a sense that even Obama was bound by the Constitution that granted due process to American citizens. However, this may no longer be the case, although one imagines that the Supreme Court may well end up issuing a ruling on the subject. In a document released by the Justice Department, a key right guaranteed to Americans appears to have been removed, provoking outrage, though not necessarily from the obvious location. Remarkably, the American right, not the left, is leading protests; the Libertarians, not the ACLU, which is telling in itself.

With drones being referred to by Senator Diane Feinstein as ‘the perfect assassination tool’ it is no surprise that their use has expanded rapidly as the White House seeks to reduce cost and increase efficiency, whilst simultaneously withdrawing troops and maintaining a credible posture against her perceived enemies throughout the world.   Indeed the evolution of drones parallels the evolution of Obama: What began as a rather benign platform designed merely to offer a surveillance tool has become the latest vehicle of devastation delivering death from the skies. Similarly, the man who campaigned as the anti-Bush in 2008 now appears to be determined to out-do his predecessor and comes equipped with an equally complicit Attorney General.

Much was made of the legal rulings relating to the prosecution of the war on terror issued by the Justice Department under George W. Bush. The findings of John Yoo came in for particular scrutiny. This week, however, has seen the release of a legal ruling that goes far beyond anything that was issued whilst George W. Bush was president. In response to demands from Congress and in particular the filibuster by Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder has released a letter detailing the president’s authority to use drone strikes against American citizens, potentially on American soil. This potentially opens the way for drones to patrol American boarders, armed not only with surveillance equipment, but also with more lethal cargo designed to prevent further illegal immigration. Drones are already being used as surveillance tools so their development in this direction for domestic use is hardly a leap.

The issue speaks directly to a fundamental problem in regard to the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. The president gets to appoint America’s chief law official, who then becomes beholden to the chief executive for his very livelihood. In the United States, officials serve at the pleasure of the president and whilst removing an Attorney General is not something a president would do lightly, it is hardly unheard of. The problems in this relationship become compounded when the president appoints a friend to the job, as is the case with Eric Holder, since it further blurs the boundaries of responsibility and accountability.

Throughout Obama’s first term, Holder was a lightening rod for opponents of the administration’s efforts to process the legal aspect of the war on terror. From closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility to holding trials for those charged with terrorist activity, Holder was required to advise the president and on issue after issue ran into serious opposition from Congress that forced the administration to capitulate. That Holder survived the first term was nothing less than miraculous. That he retuned in the second term is even more remarkable. However, whatever controversies he thought he had faced in the first term will pale into insignificance compared to the firestorm that threatens to erupt over the legal finding released this week that appear to contradict the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Holder’s subsequent efforts to walk back this position will only add to the confusion and again are reminiscent of his constant manoeuvring in the first term.

The legal wrangling affects not only American citizens but the wider international community and the attempted extension of United States’ laws into the international domain is an area for increasing concern. It has been extended to cover Canada in relation to pollution and with the expansion of drone bases in Africa, the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation of global justice continues apace. The continuation of America’s epic struggle with the forces of political violence, over a decade after 9/11, presents a whole series of challenges to international law and to the international community. The world is becoming beholden to American justice but without a say in its development in an odd twist of history: The United States came into being once citizens in the American colonies became tired of taxation without representation. Today, much of the world is beginning to feel like an American colony, beholden to U.S. policy but without any role in its development. Is it time to say, “No assassination without representation”?

Republicans are displaying their outrage at this decision and raising issues of due process. They have a valid point. But they are also partly to blame for the dénouement that they have left the administration in. Obama has been unable to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility due to Congressional resistance. The camp is politically unwelcome but neither can it be closed. Prisoners cannot now be relocated to Super-Max prisons in the United States and no other country is scrambling to accept them either. They remain in continued legal limbo. Having been placed in an effective checkmate over the whole idea of prisoners, the White House will not feel inclined to add to a list of inmates. No wonder, therefore, that the debate over Kill or Capture is being won by proponents of the former rather than the latter.

This all comes about in the same week that the Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as DCI. Brennan has spent the first term as Obama’s chief counter-terrorism tsar and has been a chief advocate of drone technology. His move to Langley could signal that the agency continues to play a large role in the use and control of such technology in the foreseeable future.

As Obama moves to secure his foreign policy team for his second term, he does so in the knowledge that he is now beyond the will of the American electorate. Never again will he be required to place his name on a ballot and seek approval for his policies or actions. Rather, it is now his legacy that is at stake, and in this turn of events, it appears that his journey to the Dark Side is Complete.

The Ghost of Presidents Past: Bill Clinton and the 2012 Presidential Election

Having been duly chastised for speaking his mind four years ago, Bill Clinton is now being utilised by President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Clinton is appearing in campaign commercials, lauding Obama’s prowess as Commander in Chief and hailing his ability to finish the job that Clinton himself had started in the late 1990s, the killing of Bin Laden.

In 2008 he was the staunchest supporter of Barack Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton. The former president was roundly and ridiculously attacked for suggesting that Obama’s candidacy was a joke and for expressing the opinion that Obama’s much vaunted opposition to the Iraq War was a fairy tale. In the process he learnt a lesson that has become apparent in Europe: “Thou Shalt Not Speak bad of Obama for fear of being misconstrued…”

It appears that in politics, if you wait long enough, you see everything and that the troubling details of reality are forgotten, with only myth surviving. In the 1992 presidential campaign both the Democrat and Republican candidates made reference to Harry Truman and attempted to cast themselves as his political standard bearer, albeit for differing reasons. In addition, wave after wave of politicians from all walks of life have attempted to benefit from the legacy of the Kennedy bothers. This election season the ghost of presidents past appears to be Bill Clinton.

Of course the link between Obama and Clinton is an interesting one. Recall that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in 2008, only to see her one shot at the presidency usurped by Barack Obama, whose career she has sought to nurture in its early stages. The Clinton’s combined sense of unease at this is understandable and forms the basis for most of the Game Change book, as opposed to the HBO movie, that chose to ignore the Democratic infighting. Equally infuriating to the Clinton’s was the way in which their supporters chose to jump ship to Obama’s banner long before it became apparent that he was guaranteed victory. No defection was more symbolic than that of the Kennedys, whom Bill had courted assiduously during his time in office. Ultimately, Hillary and many former Clinton era officials wound up working for Obama in the White House, in a move that should put pay to the debate to the actor/agency debate in international relations theory.

However, Bill Clinton is also being touted by the presumptive Republican Mitt Romney, who is contrasting Clinton’s New Democrat approach with the seemingly Old Democrat mentality of Barack Obama. Speaking in Lansing, Michigan, Romney said of the contrast between Clinton and Obama:

“President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn’t work then, they haven’t worked over the last four years, and they won’t work in the future. New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results.

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38% of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50%.”

President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.”

This is the same Bill Clinton that was impeached by the Republican controlled Congress; the same Bill Clinton who couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for his first budget and the same Bill Clinton who failed to receive over 50% of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. Now, apparently, he is Mitt Romney’s poster boy for sensible government!

All things considered, one can see why Romney would contrast Clinton’s time in office with Obama’s. Consider the economic record of the United States during Clinton’s tenure and the fact that by the 2000 election, the debate was about what to do with the budget surplus! It really is remarkable that Obama has not sought to make more use of Clinton during his first term in his efforts to get the economy back on track.

Of course, Bill Clinton is the ex-president who never really went away. An adroit campaigner, Clinton has never strayed from the limelight and appears incapable of yielding the floor to a new generation of politicians and to be honest, why should he? Over ten years after leaving office, Clinton still remains the Democrat’s most potent campaigner in chief. Clinton’s abilities were often overlooked, or dismissed as being evidence of a Slick Willy mentality, but he was and remains a political mastermind, capable of guile and cunning and a far more able politician than the current occupant of the White House.

Much is made of Obama’s rhetorical capacity, but his stumbling syntax when faced by a malfunctioning TelePrompTer reveals a different story. Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994 when he was forced to ad-lib for 20 minutes due to the wrong speech having been loaded into the TelePrompTer.

The irony in all of this is incredible. In 20912 both Republican and Democratic candidates are utilising Bill Clinton in a positive light on their campaigns. In 2000 Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, refused to adequately utilise Clinton or even his own record in office and ended up loosing the election by a couple of hanging chads in Florida.

It will be interesting to see how Romney’s remarks play out in Republican political circles. It is likely that they will reinforce the widely held view of Romney as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that despite Rick Santorum’s middle of the night ‘endorsement’ he remains the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” in 2012.