Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
Thanks to the nomination of John Brennan as C.I.A. director, the United States is finally conducting a national conversation about President Obama’s dangerous expansion of presidential power. Going Bush and Cheney one better, the Obama Administration insists that the president can order the targeted killing, that is, the legalized murder, of American citizens abroad if they pose a threat to American interests. The so-called white paper obtained by NBC News in early February ostensibly narrows the range of executive action by limiting it to high level al Qaeda officials posing “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” but the definition of imminent is so broad that it allows targeting anyone deemed a terrorist (read: enemy of the United States).
The official conversation, not surprisingly, is rather dismal. One idea, floated by Senators and supported by Obama, has developed some traction: establish a secret judicial review process to sanction the killings. The problem here is not just that proponents of this idea model it after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, a clandestine body that “monitors” government eavesdropping in the United States and rarely if ever denies the state the warrants it seeks; the problem is that Obama and others want to normalize the practice of presidential killing, give it both a Congressional and official judicial seal of approval. The proposal, in other words, seeks to disseminate responsibility—and thus, ironically, preempt accountability—for a “process” that has no place in a democratic society.
Remarkably, while a handful of politicians express some concern or unease about executive overreach (how can the president play the role of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner?), there is little or no indignation, at least not in the mainstream. What’s more, even proponents of the idea of a supervisory court worry that it might impinge on the president’s prerogatives as commander-in-chief. Thus the very reason for a court also turns out to be an objection to it. What’s worse, the president, perhaps too busy skeet shooting to exercise the authority he claims to possess, has distanced himself from active involvement in the targeting process, preferring to unleash a rejuvenated C.I.A. that effectively answers to no one. Obama may ridicule Republicans for wanting to live in the 1950s, but he has already returned government to that lawless era of coups and assassinations.
The lack of outcry should come as no surprise to any close observer of American politics. The United States loves executive power and wants to see it deployed, including in spectacular fashion, on behalf of American interests. Obama has been waging a vicious drone campaign for years in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, producing hundreds of civilian casualties, without official dissent. Republicans who profess to believe in small government, who foam at the mouth at the prospect of the state playing a supporting role in providing health insurance to tens of millions of fellow citizens, fall silent in the face of Obama Administration’s happy trigger finger.
The country’s love affair with executive power was on full display during last month’s inauguration. Nationally televised, commentators universally celebrated the event as American democracy’s finest moment: the pageantry of the peaceful transfer (or reaffirmation) of political power. No prospect of coups, no violence in the streets, nothing untoward mars America’s political system. What a sight to behold, we were told over and over again.
What were we actually looking at while being tutored in American political ritual by the likes of Diane Sawyer? Our attention is riveted on a large black SUV with tinted windows, containing the president and first lady, making its way slowly on the streets of Washington, D.C. from the Capitol to the White House. When will the SUV stop, Sawyer asks breathlessly? When will the brave president leave the secure confines of his armored vehicle, alas necessary in the age of terrorism, an age which makes him a target wherever he goes? At long last Obama deigns to appear before the American people. This is the moment we have been waiting for. Ooh, look at the thickness of the door frame, Sawyer gushes. No one knows just how thick it is, she claims (it looks to be about six inches). There he is! President Obama waves to the people, to his most ardent supporters, to federal employees who have the day off. He’s a veritable rock star. Jonathan Karl offers some firsthand reporting about the electric atmosphere, but it’s so loud he can’t hear a thing! I hope you can hear me, Diane! As Obama walks a few blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue, he carries on a tradition started by Jimmy Carter in 1977 to make the presidency seem a little less imperial. By displaying himself in this way, the school lesson continues, Obama shows us that he is the American people’s president. He represents us. It’s a moment for people and president to bond in celebration of the exceptional American political system (as if other democracies don’t routinely transfer power without incident). That this same smiling, beaming man might also have to wield terrible destructive power is the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. Besides, that’s not the face of a killer, is it? Look, he’s waving to me! He’s saluting us! Two thumbs up!
Still, Obama’s inaugural address emphasized the indispensable role of citizens in the American democracy. It’s “we, the people” who ultimately matter and decide the country’s future. If we act together, our best days lie ahead of us. Thank you for this reminder, Mr. President. Perhaps we should start by raising the question of impeachment for the blood on Obama’s hands. Not because I have concluded that Obama can or should necessarily be impeached, but to give the drone question the proper political, juridical, and rhetorical context. True, Obama accelerated withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the price has been high and paid largely by others (Pakistani and Yemeni civilians). After all, might not the arbitrary assassination of American citizens (not so-called citizens, Diane Feinstein’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand notwithstanding) constitute a “high crime” as delineated in the Constitution? Cornel West thinks Obama’s drone program, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of casualties, amounts to a sequence of war crimes. Let’s act on Obama’s advice and take back (some of) the power that presidents, perhaps especially the last two, have arrogated to themselves. We can start with Barack and then move on to W., who can’t be impeached, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the dock for his personal war in Iraq. In the name of national security, our democratic security, let’s put presidents in their place. That they walk among us and wave every four years does not make them any less dangerous; if anything it enhances the awesome powers already at their disposal.