Unspoken Legacy: The Perils of Letting Obama Off the Hook for Executive Overreach

February 23, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Many Americans were fond of Barack Obama. He left office with some of the highest approval ratings of his entire term. On foreign policy, as in most matters, he seemed reflective, deliberate, and rational. An effective communicator, he maintained composure and presidential poise, no matter the topic. In rare moments of frustration, Obama channeled “disappointed sitcom dad” rather than “blustering bully.” Love him or hate him, Obama was a gentleman. And that’s the problem. Mainstream progressives – who cried foul at George W. Bush’s every move – looked the other way as Obama expanded unfettered presidential power in foreign affairs. Why? Because they trusted him – his judgment, character, and motives. Maybe that trust was warranted. Here’s the catch: the 22nd amendment. No president may serve for more than eight years, no matter how beloved (by some). Furthermore, each chief executive creates important precedents for his successor. For this reason, many liberals – and perhaps the former president himself – may come to lament Obama’s principal foreign policy legacy: the unbridled expansion of executive power in matters of (endless) war.

Presidential primacy is nothing new, of course. Executive power has gradually expanded for centuries, especially since World War II. The Obama administration eschewed imprudent, large-scale, conventional invasions, but his legacy is also defined by a sustained campaign of extrajudicial killings of terrorists, expanding the range and geographic scope of military operations, and cracking down on media leaks and whistleblowers. In each sphere, Obama’s hawkish behavior surpassed even that of George W. Bush. This is one reason why Republican criticism of Obama’s supposedly “weak” and “feckless” foreign policy  was so confusing. Sure, it’s fair to debate the wisdom of the Iran nuclear deal, his handling of the Syrian civil war, and his near-total withdrawal from Iraq. These are thorny issues worthy of complex analysis. But to label Obama a “dove” is just empirically false.

Bush and his advisors – think Cheney, Wolfowitz, and company – thought big: massive invasions, democracy promotion, remaking the Middle East, etc. Not so for “no-drama Obama.” He preferred more precise, discreet responses to regional terrorism. Bush may have started the covert drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, but Obama ordered ten times as many attacks. Look, many (maybe a majority) of the victims were dangerous, dedicated terrorists. However, militants’ family members and other innocent bystanders also perished. One might plausibly ask why the method of killing matters. War is war and it is hell, after all. Nonetheless, there is something unique, unsettling, and even “Orwellian” about a president maintaining “kill lists” and holding “Terror Tuesday” targeting meetings. Remember, the United States is not at war with Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, or Yemen.  After 15 years of strife, it seems Americans became numb to just how unprecedented this is – violating airspace to kill foreign nationals in sovereign nations on a weekly basis.

Even more unsettling was the artificial secrecy surrounding the government targeted drone strikes program. The administration wouldn’t even acknowledge these “covert” attacks for three years.  Later, Obama sought to normalize the attacks – including via a flippant threat  to use predator drones on the Jonas Brothers. And despite Obama’s assertions to the contrary, drone attacks occurred with virtually no congressional or judicial oversight. Such a program proceeded to its logical, and arguably unconstitutional conclusion – the high-altitude execution of an American citizen in Yemen. No doubt Anwar al-Awlaki was a dangerous fanatic – but should Americans not fret over government’s ability to (euphemistically) “remove [a citizen] from the battlefield” without due-process? Deliberations within the executive branch do not qualify as oversight. Maybe you trusted Obama’s judgment. A lot of people did.  What about his successor?  Consider the words of former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations: “I think that the rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused. But who is to say about a future president?”

Let us next turn to the ever-expanding geographic scope of America’s “War for the Greater Middle East.” Under Obama, the U.S. military conducted air and ground strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Somalia. That’s more than his predecessor.  And, as noted, the United States is at war with none of those countries. On this point the Constitution is crystal clear: According to Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, Congress shall have the power to “declare war…and make rules concerning captures on land and water.” True, no president has adhered to this edict since World War II, but recent expansion of executive war powers must stand uniquely alone.  Certainly, the vague and capacious post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) provided congressional approval to  “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”  But can this approval reasonably apply to recent strikes in Yemen, Libya, or Somalia?  ISIL didn’t exist in 2001, and Islamist elements in Libya and Yemen had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. These groups may, in fact, be a threat to U.S. interests – but that’s not the point! This is about checks, balances, and government oversight.

Presidents Bush and Obama instinctively lumped every perceived security challenge under the umbrella of the AUMF. In one sense, who could blame them? Congress is perpetually gridlocked and explicitly uninterested in exercising its constitutional duty. In 2015, Obama did try to update the authorization. The effort was dead on arrival. Democrats and Republicans found the new AUMF too broad and too narrow, respectively. Besides, the 2003 Iraq War authorization signaled the risk inherent to congressmen taking stands on matters of war and peace. Political cowardice won out and handed unrestrained power to the president. How will the new commander-in-chief wield such awesome capacity?

Finally, we turn to the much maligned “crooked” media. Sure, the recent invective between journalists and the Trump administration is spiraling out of control. Yet, even here, Obama’s legacy presents cause for concern. All early campaign rhetoric to the contrary, the last administration was notoriously opaque on certain aspects of national security. In fact, Obama used the controversial 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more leakers and whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. While there’s certainly a need for reasonable levels of government secrecy, the classification process and national security state have grown increasingly pernicious. When in doubt, government agencies’ default course is to reflexively classify. No matter their political persuasion, citizens ought to desire a free, fair press. Independent journalists require anonymous sources to maintain the transparency Americans once held dear. More prosecutions and threats of serious jail time will inevitably reduce the likelihood courageous sources will step forward. And given President Trump’s contentious “running war” with the press, Obama’s precedent may only be the beginning.

In his defense, Obama was occasionally repentant on some of these issues. He publicly referred to the 2011 Libyan intervention as his “worst mistake.” This stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s unrepentant attitude, to the end, about the Iraq invasion. But Obama’s sometimes penitent self-awareness won’t save American democracy. The inexorable centralization of foreign affairs within the executive branch is a legitimate cause for concern.  Partisan politics aside, the current president has said all of the following: the United States should have “taken Iraq’s oil” because “it used to be to the victor belongs the spoils;” that he would “bomb the ****” out of ISIL; bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding;”  defeat terrorists by “taking out their families;” and if Iranian sailors make inappropriate gestures at our ships, they’ll be “shot out of the water.” Look, maybe you – the reader – think President Trump is right in each instance. I suppose that’s debatable, though it’s not the point.

The president’s statements are relevant because they raise crucial questions about the future course of U.S. strategy. Trump is not a status-quo kind-of-guy. No one can accurately predict the exact course of this administration’s foreign policy, or forecast the next global crisis.  Nonetheless, the president’s past and present statements hint at an even more aggressive, bellicose foreign policy than that of his two decidedly hawkish predecessors. What does this mean in practice? War with Iran – a mountainous, fiercely nationalist country, larger than Iraq in both size and population? Expanded bombings and ground troops to finish the job in Mosul and Raqqa? Ten more years fighting in Afghanistan? Or maybe something else entirely. No matter the precise course, the centralization of war-making and diplomacy in the executive branch is chilling. And the uncomfortable fact – especially for progressives – is this: President Obama shares much of the blame.

The United States embarks upon this new administration with its population more riven than at any time in recent memory. Citizens on both sides retreat to their partisan battle stations and await the next (seemingly daily) crisis. With the free press divided and increasingly eviscerated, Congress missing in action, and the judiciary deadlocked, who shall check the “imperial” presidency? Long after the reality-TV-style minutiae currently dominating the headlines is forgotten, historians may conclude that the broader trend of swelling executive power was the true threat to the republic. Republicans won’t always hold power. Neither will the Democrats. Both ought to start caring about this problem.

One last thing: no doubt many of my fellow soldiers will be elated and distracted by promises of pay raises, troop surges, and shiny new equipment. But they had better be ready for some likely tradeoffs – more deployments, more uncertainty, and endless war. And you know what? They won’t be able to blame it all on our current, controversial president. This problem has a much older backstory, and partly, an Obama one.

 

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point.  A native of Staten Island, NY, he graduated West Point and served tours with reconnaissance units in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He earned his MA in history from the University of Kansas and is working on his PhD on Civil Rights in New York City.  His recent book, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, was released by University Press of New England in October 2015. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!