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The Obama Contradiction
Posted on Apr 30, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
At the same time, they began expanding the realm of presidentially ordered “covert” military operations (most of which were, in the end, well publicized)—from drone wars to the deployment of special operations forces. These were signposts indicating the power of an unchained president to act without constraint abroad. Similarly, at home, the Bush administration began expanding what would once have been illegal surveillance of citizens and other forms of presidentially inspired overreach. They began, in other words, treating the U.S. as if it were part of an alien planet, as if it were, in some sense, a foreign country and they the occupying power.
With a cowed Congress and a fearful, distracted populace, they undoubtedly were free to do far more. There were few enough checks and balances left to constrain a war president and his top officials. It turned out, in fact, that the only real checks and balances they felt were internalized ones, or ones that came from within the national security state itself, and yet those evidently did limit what they felt was possible.
The Obama Conundrum
This, then, was what Barack Obama inherited on entering the Oval Office: an expanding, but not yet fully expansive, commander-in-chief presidency, which, in retrospect, seemed to fit him like a… glove. Of course, he also inherited the Bush administration’s domestic failures and those in the Greater Middle East, and they overshadowed what he’s done with that commander-in-chief presidency.
It’s true that, with President Truman’s decision to go to war in Korea in 1950, Congress’s constitutional right to declare war (rather than rubberstamp a presidential announcement of the same) went by the boards. So there’s a distinct backstory to our present imperial presidency. Still, in our era, presidential war-making has become something like a 24/7 activity.
Once upon a time, American presidents didn’t consider micro-managing a permanent war state as a central part of their job description, nor did they focus so unrelentingly on the U.S. military and the doings of the national security state. Today, the president’s word is death just about anywhere on the planet and he exercises that power with remarkable frequency. He appears in front of “the troops” increasingly often and his wife has made their wellbeing part of her job description. He has at his command expanded “covert” powers, including his own private armies: a more militarized CIA and growing hordes of special operations forces, 60,000 of them, who essentially make up a “covert” military inside the U.S. military.
In effect, he also has his own private intelligence outfits, including most recently a newly formed Defense Clandestine Service at the Pentagon focused on non-war zone intelligence operations (especially, so the reports go, against China and Iran). Finally, he has what is essentially his own expanding private (robotic) air force: drones.
He can send his drone assassins and special ops troops just about anywhere to kill just about anyone he thinks should die, national sovereignty be damned. He firmly established his “right” to do this by going after the worst of the worst, killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with special operations forces and an American citizen and jihadi, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen with a drone.
At the moment, the president is in the process of widening his around-the-clock “covert” air campaigns. Almost unnoted in the U.S., for instance, American drones recently carried out a strike in the Philippines killing 15 and the Air Force has since announced a plan to boost its drones there by 30%. At the same time, in Yemen, as previously in the Pakistani borderlands, the president has just given the CIA and the U.S. Joint Operations Command the authority to launch drone strikes not just against identified “high-value” al-Qaeda “targets,” but against general “patterns of suspicious behavior.” So expect an escalating drone war there not against known individuals, but against groups of suspected evildoers (and as in all such cases, innocent civilians as well).
This is another example of something that would be forbidden at home, but is now a tool of unchecked presidential power elsewhere in the world: profiling.
As with Bush junior, the only thing that constrains the president and his team, it seems, is some set of internalized checks and balances. That’s undoubtedly why, before he ordered the successful drone assassination of Awlaki, lawyers from the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, intelligence agencies, and the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel held meetings to produce a 50-page memorandum providing a “legal” basis for the president to order the assassination of a U.S. citizen, a document, mind you, that will never be released to the public.
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