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How Obama Became a Hawk

In a Guardian piece titled “Drone wars and state secrecy – how Barack Obama became a hardliner,” Paul Harris argues that the president has come a long way from his days as a “liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war.”

[T]he “kill list” and rapidly expanded drone programme are just two of many aspects of Obama’s national security policy that seem at odds with the expectations of many supporters in 2008. Having come to office on a powerful message of breaking with Bush, Obama has in fact built on his predecessor’s national security tactics.

Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the controversial Guantánamo Bay prison and pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts. He has preserved CIA renditions. He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process.

The sheer scope and breadth of Obama’s national security policy has stunned even fervent Bush supporters and members of the Washington DC establishment. In last week’s New York Times article that detailed the “kill list”, Bush’s last CIA director, Michael Hayden, said Obama should open the process to more public scrutiny. “Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a [Department of Justice] safe,” he told the newspaper.

Even more pertinently, Aaron David Miller, a long-term Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, delivered a damning verdict in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote bluntly: “Barack Obama has become George W Bush on steroids.”

Many disillusioned supporters would agree. Jesselyn Radack was a justice department ethics adviser under Bush who became a whistleblower over violations of the legal rights of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Now Radack works for the Government Accountability Project, defending fellow whistleblowers. She campaigned for Obama, donated money and voted for him. Now she has watched his administration – which promised transparency and whistleblower protection – crack down on national security whistleblowers.

It has used the Espionage Act – an obscure first world war anti-spy law – six times. That is more such uses in three years than all previous presidents combined. Cases include John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who leaked details of waterboarding, and Thomas Drake, who revealed the inflated costs of an NSA data collection project that had been contracted out. “We did not see this coming. Obama has led the most brutal crackdown on whistleblowers ever,” Radack said.

Yet the development fits in with a growing level of secrecy in government under Obama. Last week a report by the Information Security Oversight Office revealed 2011 had seen US officials create more than 92m classified documents: the most ever and 16m more than the year before. Officials insist much of the growth is due to simple administrative procedure, but anti-secrecy activists are not convinced. Some estimates put the number of documents wrongly classified as secret at 90%.

“We are seeing the reversal of the proper flow of information between the government and the governed. It is probably the fundamental civil liberties issue of our time,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at the Brennan Centre for Justice. “The national security establishment is getting bigger and bigger.”

Now, some of this is misleading or otherwise unfair. Obama didn’t campaign as a dove; indeed, he called for escalating the war in Afghanistan and was lampooned by Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike for his pledge to take it into Pakistan. Congressional balking at transferring its prisoners to domestic facilities made closing Gitmo next to impossible. The Supreme Court gave its approval to military tribunals; the controversial alternative was no due process whatsoever. And the “simple administrative procedure” explanation for the ridiculous overclassification problem strikes me as more than plausible.

In that context, I don’t think “George Bush on steroids” is fair. More accurate is the description I gave six months into Obama’s administration: “Bush’s Third Term.” That is, we’re seeing the national evolution of Bush policy rather than a radical escalation.

Indeed, my reaction upon seeing the headline was that the obvious answer to the question “how Barack Obama became a hardliner” was “he became president.” It’s simply easier to be faithful to principles of civil liberties, due process, information transparency, and the like from the comfort of a university lectern, a blogger’s keyboard, the campaign trail, or even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee than as the commander-in-chief. No one else feels the weight of responsibility for all the bad things that might happen in the same way. Nor does anyone else get a daily–if not hourly–deluge of information about those bad things in quite the same detail.

Further, it’s no accident that it’s in the realm of military and national security policy that presidents tend to press the limits of their power. It’s the arena in which they have the most freedom of action. Making major progress on domestic issues is difficult by institutional design–requiring majority if not supermajority approval in both Houses of Congress–and next to impossible in the poisonous atmosphere of the past quarter century. Conversely, in foreign policy, the president can often simply issue orders. And Congress and the public tends to go along with almost anything if done in the name of “the national security.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    It’s simply easier to be faithful to principles of civil liberties, due process, information transparency, and the like from the comfort of a university lectern, a blogger’s keyboard, the campaign trail, or even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee than as the commander-in-chief.

    So true. It’s also easier to make these issues your primary concern from a lectern, keyboard, or campaign trail. Sit in the chair for a bit and I think the trade-offs would become clearer.

    Also, I appreciate this:

    Obama didn’t campaign as a dove

    Especially when one of the biggest complaints I hear (aside from the birther/Wright/socialist nonsense farted out by the extremist right) is about Obama’s broken promises. Makes me wonder if they were hearing different promises than I did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    I think the only reason Bush/Cheney hadn’t taken these policies to this extreme is because they didn’t have time, not that they decided things had gone far enough.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. Mark Ivey says:

    Obama is a moderate republican to me, when he quotes Ronald Reagan, i can´t disagree.

    :-9

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. steve says:

    I think Obama is more likely to work with allies (not go it alone) than Bush, but otherwise I dont think there is lot of diference in terms of foreign policy between the two. Even then, I think the Bush who dumped Rumsfeld and stopped listening to Cheney is different than the early Bush. The later Bush worked more with our allies.

    James- I know this will be a hard call, but how would you rate the two on competence? The Iraq war, after the initial invasion, was a travesty for a long time. They ignored Zinni’s wargaming and went ahead with a minimal force and got the expected consequences. Contrast that with Libya where we lost no lives and spent relatively little money. The alienation of Russia, the inability to finish free trade deals, essentially ignoring everything south of our border. I would say both have sucked on Afghanistan and Bush should get credit for his Africa efforts.

    Steve

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  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Obama isn’t the first liberal to be jarred into being sentient by the harsh elements of reality. He won’t be the last. Combine that dynamic with a desire on Obama’s part to be reelected (the last politician openly to run a national election campaign as a dove lost 49 out of 50 states), and hence you have the ingredients for the transformation of Obama as the loopy academic into Obama the brass knuckled killing machine.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Obama didn’t campaign as a dove; indeed, he called for escalating the war in Afghanistan and was lampooned by Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike for his pledge to take it into Pakistan.

    Was sitting at a table with some friends last wkend when Obama’s record v. campaign promises came up. One guy brought up the fable that Obama said he would end the wars in I and A. I said something like, “Oh, c’mon, that isn’t true.” He said, “Yes it is. How many people here, heard him say that?” They all raised their hands. He looked at me and said,”What do you think of that?” (like he had just won the argument)

    “I think you all are a bunch of idiots who weren’t paying attention.” and then I said something along the lines of what you said James, at which point one sentient being who still had a few working memory cells said, “Oh yeah…. He did say that.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. James Joyner says:

    @steve: I’m not sure it’s possible. Obama has been steadier but he’s not faced the same level of testing.

    Iraq became a spectacular failure and it was to a large extent one of Bush’s own making. At the same time, it was a natural escalation of existing US policy, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The real overreach there was the extending nation building project that followed moreso than the invasion and regime change operation. Then again, the nation building wouldn’t have happened without those.

    Probably the worst foreign policy failure of Obama’s tenure thus far has been Afghanistan. Yes, he inherited a bad situation. But he tripled down on it, making it his own, and got a lot of people killed for nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    Probably the worst foreign policy failure of Obama’s tenure thus far has been Afghanistan. Yes, he inherited a bad situation. But he tripled down on it, making it his own, and got a lot of people killed for nothing.

    This.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Obama’s 2008 campaign was almost magical in its ability to be all things to all people. Partly, it’s because Obama was something of a blank slate and people saw in him what they wanted to see. Partly, it’s because he tended to give answers that were “a little bit of this, a little bit of that, with caveats” that allowed people to pick and choose. Mostly, I think it was just a function of his charisma.

    Regardless, hard-core conservatives and hard-core progressives alike saw him as an ideological lefty while moderates, including many who historically voted Republican, saw themselves. After 3-1/2 years, hard-core progressives think he’s a radical conservative reactionary, moderate Dems see him as a moderate conservative, moderate conservatives see him as a moderate leftie, and hard core conservatives see him as a hard core Socialist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Herb says:

    @James Joyner:

    “a lot of people killed for nothing”

    Should be the title of a book.

    A Lot of People Killed For Nothing: A Modern History of Afghanistan and 35 years of Warfare. (It comes out next year…)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: And the really nasty part of it was that had Obama tried to withdraw at any point from Afghanistan before the US got sick and tired of the whole affair, he would have been immediately attacked by the Right as being a wimp and appeaser. It’s only now, after the sheer gawdawfulness of the situation is obvious to everyone, that he has room to maneuver.

    We never do seem to learn from our Vietnams.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: I’ve argued all along that the Surge was a political move rather than a strategic one. I think the reason for the long pause between McChrystal’s plan and Obama’s response is that he was trying to come up with a way to back out and couldn’t.

    But, yeah, he got pilloried for following the Bush timetable on Iraq even though there was really no choice, given Iraq’s insistence that we hold to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    Obama is a moderate republican to me, when he quotes Ronald Reagan, i can´t disagree

    .

    He’s what they used to call a Liberal Republican. There used to be a number of people like him in the Senate – Jacob Javits (NY), Mark Hatfield (OR), Olympia Snowe (ME), Lincoln Chaffee (RI) and so forth.

    He’s about as “socialist” and “marxist” as a John Deere tractor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    “hard-core conservatives and hard-core progressives alike saw him as an ideological lefty”

    No, hard core progressives sawy him as the furthest right of the 3 main Democratic candidates for President in 2008.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. anjin-san says:

    More accurate is the description I gave six months into Obama’s administration: “Bush’s Third Term.”

    Hmmm. Bush was into large, bloody, expensive, and ineffective wars. Obama more into maximum results with minimum commitment of resources. You could argue that their policy goals are similar, but methods and results are a far different story. Bush was a D+, Obama a B+.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: The premise of that article, though, was that Bush had abandoned that agenda by the 2nd term and, especially, after the 2006 midterm. The neocons (Rummy, Wolfowitz, Feith, etc.) were out and the Realists (Rice and Gates) were in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Jenos Idanian says:

    Regardless of idiots proclaiming groundlessly “Bush would have done X,” Obama has been considerably more aggressive in certain areas than Bush would have been. Three examples that come to mind are the “take no prisoners, just kill ‘em all” policy toward terrorists, the targeted assassination of an American citizen who had never been indicted of any crimes, and starting a “war of choice” without the approval or even notification of Congress.

    Had Bush done any of those things, Obama’s base would have been screaming impeachment. And, in one or possibly two cases, thoroughly justified. (I give him a pass on the assassination of Al-Awlaki, but it still is exactly the kind of thing that the Left would NEVER have tolerated from Bush.)

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