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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

 
Constraints for thee but not for me

by digby


For nearly four years, the president had waged a relentless war from the skies against Al Qaeda and its allies, and he trusted that he had found what he considered a reasonable balance even if his critics did not see it that way. But now, he told his aides, he wanted to institutionalize what in effect had been an ad hoc war, effectively shaping the parameters for years to come “whether he was re-elected or somebody else became president,” as one aide said...

While part of the re-evaluation was aimed at the next president, it was also about Mr. Obama’s own legacy. What became an exercise lasting months, aides said, forced him to confront his deep conflicts as commander in chief: the Nobel Peace Prize winner with a “kill list,” the antiwar candidate turned war president, the avowed champion of transparency ordering operations over secret battlegrounds. He wanted to be known for healing the rift with the Muslim world, not raining down death from above.

Over the past year, aides said, Mr. Obama spent more time on the subject than on any other national security issue, including the civil war in Syria. The speech he would eventually deliver at the National Defense University became what one aide called “a window into the presidential mind” as Mr. Obama essentially thought out loud about the trade-offs he sees in confronting national security threats.

“Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,” the president said in his speech, and he seemed to be talking about himself as well. Mr. Obama said the seeming precision and remote nature of modern warfare can “lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism,” and it was not hard to imagine which president he had in mind.

“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle,” Mr. Obama said, “or else it will define us.”

In a sense, that had already happened to Mr. Obama. Somehow he had gone from the candidate who criticized what he saw as President George W. Bush’s excesses to the president who expanded the drone program his predecessor had left him. The killing he authorized in September 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen tied to terrorist attacks, brought home the disparity between how he had envisioned his presidency and what it had become. Suddenly, a liberal Democratic president was being criticized by his own political base for waging what some called an illegal war and asserting unchecked power.

"Somehow" he had gone from a candidate who criticized Bush's excesses to the president who expanded the drone program? I'm pretty sure it didn't happen by accident.  The problem, according to this article, is not that he believes he went too far or that it was a mistake, but rather that people will not remember him kindly for it. I think if he believes a change in direction at this late date can change his legacy on this, he's being naive.

When JFK came into office and signed off on the Bay of Pigs debacle, he re-evaluated the policy immediately and became skeptical of his advisers and the military. There is some evidence that this skepticism was leading him to a withdrawal in Vietnam and there's no doubt that it informed his decisions on the most important national security challenge of the nuclear age, the Cuban missile crisis. I don't get the sense from this article, or anywhere else, that this is what's at work with the Obama administration's re-evaluation. It's certainly possible that it is --- we don't know the whole story so perhaps the "leakers" of his thinking on the matter are not at liberty to share what he truly believes. But nothing in this article indicates that the president or his advisers have the least bit of regret for having taken this course.

As Spencer Ackerman writes above, he doesn't think he did anything wrong. But it's interesting that he does wish to constrain future presidents from doing as he has done. But we all know that's not how it works.  Just as he took the powers that George Bush had seized and ran with them, so too will his successors. Whatever constraints he now proposes may recapture his image as a peacemaker but he cannot change the history he's already made.


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