President Obama begins his transition period to a second term by receiving some adorable but thoughtless advice from the New York Times editorial board: “Close Guantanamo Prison,” the editors declare. The advice is adorable because it seems frozen in time four years ago, when it was slightly conceivable that Obama would do anything other than concretize and expand executive power and privilege he railed against when it was in the hands of his predecessor. It is thoughtless because Obama doesn’t need Gitmo: rather than send prisoners to Gitmo, where they receive three squares a day (and reportedly get to keep pets), he is sending them to a Somali hell on earth, where skin disease runs rampant in the overcrowded, sun-scorched cells.
The editorial also suggests he veto the National Defense Authorization Act. Readers might recall that the NDAA, which Obama signed in late 2011, was the moment civil libertarians fully understood that Obama would, contrary to his campaign promises, spend his time in office accruing as much power as he could. The ACLU, with a heavy heart and the scales fallen from their eyes, released a statement: “President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” pronounced ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield.”
But of course by that time, Obama had ordered military action against Libya without bothering to go to Congress about it and rested his national security strategy on its most secretive element: the drone war. The use of drones to target anyone the Obama administration decides poses a threat has been effective, though it comes at the cost of the deaths of civilians the administration considers collateral damage. And it is in this aspect of Obama’s national security policy that he appears to believe that what he is doing is problematic but doesn’t particularly care. The New York Times reports on a cartoonishly cynical approach to targeted assassination coming from the White House:
The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.
Obama wants to curtail the power he has accumulated for future presidents, believing as he does in accountability for everyone but him. When it looked like Romney might win the election, the White House feverishly undertook efforts to constrain his power. Now that Obama gets four more years, that effort “will now be finished at a more leisurely pace”–a phrase one hopes was typed out with a modicum of shame.
Will there be a liberal outcry? No, there won’t. What differentiates the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era and the left-wing Democrats of today is that the former believed what they said. Today’s left is an operational arm of the Democratic Party, and thus opposition to national security projects like Somali hell-prisons or drone warfare is simply a matter of partisan politics.
None of this is to suggest that what Obama is doing is unlawful–indeed, I highly doubt he is operating without legal advice and input every step of the way. But let’s remember that George W. Bush did as well, and this did nothing to quell his critics. Additionally, just because a program is secret doesn’t mean it’s nefarious; our national security depends on a great many classified and secret programs. Furthermore, Obama may be making the best of a difficult choice: drone warfare is quite probably a better option than either sending more troops into more countries or allowing a lapse in the vigilant defense of the homeland.
It’s just worth noting that Obama has made it fairly clear that he would be uncomfortable with this power in anyone’s hands but his own, yet continues wielding it. And it’s also worth noting that he will do so without any major challenge from his base.