Academic journal article Parameters

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

Academic journal article Parameters

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

Article excerpt

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

By Daniel Klaidman

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

304 pages

$14.95

Daniel Klaidman's Kill or Capture provides an in-depth examination of the Obama administration's policies on terrorism-related issues including Guantanamo Bay prisoners, harsh interrogations, military commissions, and the use of armed drones to strike against terrorists. According to Klaidman, President Obama had emerged as a foreign policy realist by the time he was elected and repeatedly proved himself to be "ruthlessly pragmatic" on terrorism issues despite his liberal instincts. An ongoing focus of this book is the legal and policy disagreements within the administration and the ways in which these struggles influenced the internal debate on a range of contentious issues. The two most important factions within the administration were sometimes slyly referred to as "Tammany Hall" and "the Aspen Institute." The bare knuckles realists of Tammany (such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) often won the most important debates, and the Aspen idealists often spent more time than they would have wished nursing their political wounds.

The author goes into extensive and sometimes painful detail about the debates among administration national security officials, attorneys, and other senior bureaucrats. According to Klaidman, "By the midway point of Obama's first year in office the White House's thermostat had swung toward Tammany." Rahm Emanuel is portrayed as tough and "transactional," focusing heavily on how any action could help the president's agenda without worrying about liberal ideals that were politically costly. Attorney General Eric Holder was often his chief foil and at least on one occasion was pushed to the brink of resignation. While Holder is one of Obama's closest friends, the president still tended to side with Emanuel on most important arguments in the belief that pragmatism was necessary to move the country forward. After over a year in office, Holder ultimately chose not to resign because it would have been widely assumed that he had been driven out by Tammany or become disillusioned with the administration to the point that he could no longer serve it. Holder understood the situation and remained a loyalist.

If the president needed any additional push to implement tough-minded policies, he clearly received it when on 25 December 2009 a member of the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) barely failed in his mission to destroy a commercial US aircraft with 289 passengers. The consequences of such an action would have been catastrophic for both the country and the administration. In addition, due to an appalling death toll, the attack could have produced serious political pressure to do something dramatic in retaliation and perhaps even undertake some sort of intervention in Yemen, which could have gone very badly. In meetings with his senior national security officials, President Obama stated, "We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It [the attack] was averted by brave individuals [passengers], not because the system worked." Five months later, the Obama administration was lucky again when the "Times Square bomber," Faisal Shahzad, selected the wrong type of fertilizer for use in a car bomb and was arrested after his car smoked but did not explode. …

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