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.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.