by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Barack Obama ran for president on a platform highly critical of the incumbent’s foreign policy. Promising greater transparency, he called the choice between civil liberties and security a “false choice” and pledged to “take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom.”
New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Charlie Savage, whose previous book, Takeover, harshly criticized George W. Bush, finds that President Obama has largely continued the policies of his predecessor. In Power Wars, using the large number of memos written by Obama’s lawyers, along with the works and words of key government officials, Savage convincingly portrays the current president’s record as having departed from the promises he made as a candidate. Given the author’s prodigious research, his book’s main flaw is that it lacks an index.
In Savage’s account, Obama decided to leave many Bush-Cheney policies in effect though a strategy of evaluating their technical legality rather than challenging them on the more fundamental grounds of violating civil liberties. The Obama team reviled Bush lawyers such as John Yoo and Jay Bybee, whose memos gave President Bush virtually unlimited power. Instead, lawyers Harold Koh of the State Department and Jeh Johnson of Defense were commissioned to grapple with complex arguments, producing detailed memos that carefully considered all sides of an issue, even when that meant slower decision-making. Ultimately, however, the legal team repeatedly condoned expansive executive power.
Take the right to target Americans abroad with drone strikes, an issue that became prominent with the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemeni background born in New Mexico. Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan stated that administration attorneys, after extensive research, had concluded that the operation was consistent with law. When sued by al-Awlaki’s father and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department was prepared to invoke the right to keep its reasoning secret—despite the fact that Obama had criticized Bush-Cheney for citing those grounds. Obama himself stated that the killing was justified because al-Awlaki was waging war on the United States. At the Obama administration’s request, a judge ruled that drone strikes were not subject to judicial review.