By Raj Kannappan,

January 13, 2012


Promises upon promises abound in elections. Senator Obama proved himself a masterful coaxer in 2008, feasting on the pining of an electorate disillusioned with the American political system. He was the unifier, the inspirational personage representing the solution to a failed decade marked by a rowdy Texan in the White House who squandered America’s capital in foreign lands.

The next four years, and surely the next eight, were to be ones marked by a robust economic recovery, a dramatic decline in poverty, and, of course, resurgence of confidence in America’s position in the world.

None of these have materialized.  In fact, in each case, the opposite predicament has arisen, pointing to an increasingly appropriate referendum of what Obama so aptly called a one-term proposition at the inception of his presidency.

Throughout the course of his first term, Obama surely learned; whether or not that knowledge satisfies or angers his staunchly liberal base and his detractors is another question. As his presidency has progressed, however, the issue on which he has shifted course almost entirely from his campaign rhetoric is that of counter-terrorism.

Pre-January 20, 2009, there were grand vows of closing Guantanamo Bay and, thus, dramatically bettering relations with the Muslim world.  Added in Obama’s cornucopia were endless assurances to improve the perception of America throughout the world, as if this were the number one job of the commander-in-chief. Seeing that Bush had but jilted any concern for this in exchange for an utterly disastrous foreign policy and national security strategy—at least, according to Obama’s tale of what would, under him, be a foreign policy dictated by “a new spirit, not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence.” Obama appeared to plant the seeds for a more internationalist agenda. What happened?

Woe to the peaceniks and the gullible progressives who had reveled in dreams of a dramatic shift from Manichean Bush to judicious Obama.

Today, veteran Democrats heed little their previously boisterous calls for a minimization of foreign policy aggression. They express at best a timid concern for the ironic reality that a president from their own party—one that has over the years claimed to have monopolized representation of the downtrodden and the true ideals of democracy—is implementing the most expansive targeted killing campaign in the history of the nation. Drone strikes have increased from one country—Pakistan, under big, bad George—to five more: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—under Obama’s Camelot.  In number, the attacks have grown significantly, from 42 under Bush to nearly 250—just in Pakistan—under Obama.

Secrecy not unlike that for which the Bush White House was criticized enshrouds the current administration’s drone campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliate brethren. The president can order the killing of selected individuals—U.S. citizens included—anywhere in the world without checks on his executive authority or oversight of any nature. Washington is well aware of this filthy secret, yet but a few souls who once indulged the president’s dictations of legal doctrine now air their critiques of Obama’s decision to cast aside his vows to uphold the law of the land and to respect the sovereignty of those nations ravaged by the decisions of one previous American leader who had supposedly embarrassed America with his machismo.

What was to be the most transparent administration in the history of the country—presumably to be defined by Obama’s own words, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government”—has resisted disclosing any details about the structure of the drone program or even the names of those who have been assassinated.  Colin Powell isolated within the Bush White House for his dissent on the Iraq War?  Well, so be the fortunes of the director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, fired promptly by Obama last year following his efforts to raise debate within the White House on the drone program.

Unmanned successes abroad? Undoubtedly. Gone are the days of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. And relegated to oblivion are hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates throughout the Greater Middle East.

But well and alive are claims of a nuanced counter-terrorism strategy driven by the needs of the day. Apparently, it’s not that Obama, former University of Chicago constitutional law professor extraordinaire, fails to stand for human rights or the rule of law. It’s just that he finds sacrificing some of these conveniently frivolous fixtures necessary to perform his most important task: protecting the country and her allies. Surely, a complex conclusion this idea does not provide.

Simply put, in Obama’s own interpretation, he embarked on an expansion of the drone campaign to protect the country and her allies. He did what he thought was right and strategically effective. After all, increasingly advanced technology in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles prevents the loss of American blood while efficiently taking out scores of American enemies.

Despite the quantifiable successes of the drone campaign, what should puzzle every witness is the brazen nature of Obama’s eager criticism of Bush’s handling of counter-terrorism. The president and his proponents continue to claim that Bush-era policies like waterboarding and Guantanamo undermined our security, violated fundamental American legal doctrine, and crossed a historic line of morality. But the same criticisms can just as easily be cast upon Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy. Admittedly, drones are one aspect of the administration’s strategy, but they do, after all, kill, not torture.

On his vision to “lead in the observance of human rights, and the rule of law, and civil rights and due process,” Obama has, measured but by his very own standards, sacrificed an abundance of credibility. His expansion of the drone campaign, in cooperation with his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which extends the Guantanamo transfer restrictions and codifies the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial; and his apparent acceptance of signing statements to modify the meaning of duly enacted laws, for which he lambasted Bush, have reinforced a well-established lesson: For Obama, the constitution is sacrosanct, except when he feels it’s not. To move from a position of claiming that he would not “use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress” to using them 20 times already is telling.

A world of difference—no, change—executive power certainly does make.