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.

Kill or Capture: The Continuation of Bush Policy

In a new book, Kill or Capture, Daniel Klaidman reveals the distinction between the foreign policy initiatives that Barack Obama campaign on and his record in office. It is significant that such a publication has finally made its way to the mainstream media. Since his election I have been researching the Obama administration and its variance from the Bush years. In 2011 I produced a paper entitled “What’s So Extraordinary about Rendition,” which was published in the International Journal of Human Rights and was subsequently presented in a wider form at an international conference in Europe. My efforts to suggest a pattern of behaviour that extended from Clinton to Bush to Obama caused me to be labelled as a ‘neo-fascist.’ It is apparent that many, especially in Europe, simply do not wish to accept the possibility that Obama has continued Bush era policies.

In this increasingly media-driven age it is widely believed and reported that new administrations bring about new policies and signify a break from the past. Such was the reaction to the election of Barack Obama. The election of the first non-white president of the United States was presented as a form of cathartic ablution; an attempt to dismiss the previous eight years as an aberration and to signify a change from the past. Covered in Nobel garlands and the apparent adulation of the globe, Obama apparently signified a return to ‘traditional American principles,’ upon which the republic was founded: liberty, justice and freedom. It was believed that with his election, had come an apparent end of neo-conservative rule dominated by a policy of pre-emption and the implementation of Extraordinary Rendition.

However, to believe this to be the case is to misread history and to misjudge the United States of America and its political philosophy. Far from being a City on a Hill, the United States has often acted in a manner that appears to undermine its high-minded ideals. From Lincoln to Lyndon and from Wilson to W, what differentiates presidents is their language rather than their actions, their tone rather than their tools. Whether they were domestically focused Democrats or internationally focused Republicans, the inhabitants of the Oval Office have often placed human rights a distant second to the priority of National Interest. It is how this concept has been defined that differentiates administrations, rather than any great concern about the global good.

Far from being radical, the Bush Administration was continuing and expanding upon a policy that had been formalised by Bill Clinton, and adhered to by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, none of which was reported on nor seemingly cared about by the American public. Indeed, rendition, long before it was considered to be extraordinary, was a policy that was devised, developed and initiated by Bush’s Democratic predecessor in a war on terror that was being waged by the United States long before the election of George W. Bush, in a contradiction between the values the United States claimed to be defending and the methods utilised in the process.

Long before everyone’s favourite Toxic Texan was elected, the White House was waging a war on Terrorism. Since the 1800s, the United States has “rendered” criminal suspects from overseas to be tried in the United States, and the U.S. Supreme Court twice endorsed criminal prosecutions after such ‘renditions to justice.’ In 1986 President Reagan authorized a rendition operation to deal with the terrorist suspects who might have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. Government officials acknowledged on the record the “rendition to justice” program that delivered those suspects to U.S. jurisdiction, and afforded detainees the due process crime suspects normally receive in that country.’ The Supreme Court upheld the government’s power to prosecute people who were seized in these abductions and kidnappings irrespective of their legality under international law in the 1992 case of United States v. Alvarez-Machain.

Clearly these practices, of bringing suspects surreptitiously to the United Sates to stand trial, differs by degrees from the policies engaged in post 9/11, but they were the harbinger of things to come, and may still have constituted a violation of international law. Lest anyone think that this is a Republican Rendition policy, it is important to note the evolution of the policy under the Clinton Administration and the emergence of a war on terror long before September 11, 2001. Indeed, an examination of policy and procedures at this time, as well as interviews with leading administration officials, reveals the origins not only of Extraordinary Rendition, but also the Axis of Evil and a focus on bin Laden as Public Enemy Number One. At home as well as abroad, the Clinton administration was fighting a war that would go unnoticed by many until it exploded above the streets of New York in 2001.

In the aftermath of September 11 2001, international terrorism would obtain a new dimension, but in the years prior to the attack the Clinton administration was not lapse in its efforts. Since 1993 more terrorists were arrested and extradited to the United States than during the totality of the previous three administrations.” In addition, covert operations were also being initiated to expel terrorists to nations with less stringent human rights policies than America. In 1996, the administration began a process of persuading allies to arrest terrorists and ship them to a third country without legal process, in an exercise known as rendition. In Albania, U.S. intelligence officers guided authorities to five members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who were flown to Egypt and executed after a military trial. Between 1996 and 2001, CIA Director George Tenet admitted that more than 50 Al Qaeda terrorists had been dealt with in this manner in an effort to “break the organisation brick by brick.”

Long before this practice became public knowledge, the DCI was far from being its sole advocate. Samuel Berger, Clinton’s second term National Security Advisor referred to it as ‘a new art form.’ Before Berger took over at the NSC, the process has been formally established in Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 39, dated June 21, 1995. This document had been prepared not in response to an international outrage, but in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist incident in Oklahoma City. Rendition began as pre-9/11 practice intended to facilitate the judicial process and only after 9/11 became a deliberate effort to evade legal prohibitions against torture.

Egypt looms large in the rendition process, and tales that have emerged from Mubarak’s prisons make awkward reading for those who seek to somehow suggest that rendition only became ‘extraordinary’ once Clinton left the White House. There was a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship at play. As Jane Mayer has noted in the New York Times, “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.” Every suspect the Americans rendered to Egypt had previously been convicted in absentia and attorneys at the CIA cleared all operations. This began with what is considered the first rendition of this era, of Talaat Fouad Qassem, who was picked up by Croatian police in Zagreb in September 1995. The Americans questioned him aboard a ship in the Adriatic, before turning him over to the Egyptian authorities who had sentenced him to death in absentia for his role in the assassination of President Anwar el Sadat.

It is vital to recall that whilst all of this was going on, no one was paying the slightest notice. The American people were busy getting wealthy and the media and Congress were too busy focusing upon the president’s inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The world was generally at peace with itself and with the United States and the president was wildly popular both at home and overseas, something not even his impeachment could alter.  Which is to say that rendition was being conducted by a Democratic president with the tacit agreement of America’s allies against known perpetrators of extreme violence and nothing was reported in the press and the populace was un-concerned.

Both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton authorised kidnapping and forcible abductions to bring fugitives to a country where they would stand trial for the crimes of which they were accused. None of this was criticised at the time yet these renditions were just as illegal under international law as what would come to be known as extraordinary rendition. The policy that emerged under George W. Bush, however, has been damned with some going so far as to equate it with ‘the Nazi operation called Nacht und Nebel or ‘Night and Fog.’’ There was no public or governmental outcry concerning rendition prior to 9/11 so one must question the degree to which the reaction can be seen as part of a concerted effort to attack the specific administration for any reason, as much as it was about the actual policy itself. Put another way, was the public reaction against rendition, or was this reaction a vehicle to further attack an already contentious and in many circles, unpopular administration?

Of course this approach to policy was all meant to end as of noon on January 20, 2009 with the arrival of the Obama Administration. Yet whilst the overriding sentiments of anti-Americanism have clearly subsided, this has had little to do with a change in policy. Obama may well be the world’s president of choice, but Dick Cheney’s view of the world has not been expressly repudiated by Obama. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has denounced the Obama Administration for adopting policies that “mimic the Bush Administration’s abusive approach.” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizner has lamented that Obama “has chosen to continue the Bush administration practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course.”

President Obama may have signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques, but his administration reaffirmed the rendition program, a move deemed to be ‘Extremely disappointing,’ according to the ACLU. There have been more predator drone attacks in Obama’s presidency than under Bush; the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay remains open. It’s change you can believe in, just not the sort that many wanted.

When asked about Rendition at his confirmation hearing, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta noted that suspects would no longer be kidnapped, sent overseas and tortured. However, he added, ‘Renditions where we return an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and then they exercise their right to try that individual and to prosecute him under their laws-I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.’ Clearly the Obama administration has chosen to return to a public stance on rendition that is akin to the previous model exercised by the Clinton White House.

These issues raise serious questions pertaining to the American sense of mission and of exceptionalism. It is hard to ascertain how they do anything but undermine such aspirations. Obama entered the Oval Office with great hopes and aspirations and with the expectation of world opinion. It is hard to see how much of this remain intact on the world stage with so few major alterations from the Bush Strategy, regardless of stated intent. This is not necessarily Obama’s fault. As president, there is, paradoxically, only so much that he can do, but the world expects so much more. There is in addition the two great double standards at work: The double standard to which great nations are always held, of either interfering too much or not often enough; and the contradictory nature of American foreign policy, of oscillating between imperial designs and latent isolationism. Solving these dilemmas will not be rectified anytime soon.

It is an historical fact that a policy of rendition predated and the presidency of George W. Bush and indeed, has continued under his successor. What changed, arguably, was the scope of the operation, not the institution itself. What changed was the public and media response to the policy, which appears to have been a backlash against the administration, as much as it was against the policy itself. The policy, therefore, not only caused offence, but was then used as a vehicle to further justify an anti-Bush mentality. Just as there was a fascination with the President’s sex life in the 1990s, so to, it would appear, was there an obsession with all things Anti-American under George W. Bush. Some referred to this as Anti-Americanism. It is perhaps more appropriate to refer to ‘anti-adminstrationism’. The focus on all things bad under Bush and the apparent capacity to overlook similar occurrences under both Clinton and now Obama, seem to justify this perspective.

Just as Bismarck once noted that the processes involved in the preparation of laws and sausage should remain hidden from public view, so too perhaps, should the policies involved in winning a struggle against those who no longer adhere to classic models of confrontation. With the publication of Kill or Capture, the wider public will have an opportunity to consider for themselves the distance travelled by President Obama from the policies that he campaigned against, yet now appears to have adopted as his own.