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

By Friedman, Benjamin H. | The Cato Journal, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Friedman, Benjamin H., The Cato Journal


Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency Daniel Klaidman New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 304 pp.

The Republican Party at least has the decency not to get its civil libertarian supporters' hopes up. Bemused tolerance and the odd Ron Paul appearance are about 'all the encouragement they get. Democratic civil libertarians, by contrast, suffer from relevance. Like other interests large enough to matter in primary elections but loyal enough to betray later, they are seduced and then scorned, especially by presidents. Their disappointment is harsher because it is less expected.

Senator Barack Obama was well-suited to secure the triumph of liberal hope over that experience. One reason was his identity: urban black constitutional law teachers with Ivy-league pedigrees seem unlikely exponents of state policing and military power. Along with revulsion at the outgoing administration, that identity was enough to get the ACLU part of the base in Jerry Maguire mode ("you had me at hello"). But there was substance too: Obama's denunciation of the Iraq War, the Guantanamo Bay prison (Gitmo), coercive interrogation methods, mad the Bush administration's "color-coded politics of fear."

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of Obama Presidency, by jouralist Daniel Klaidman, partly explains how the Obama administration has dashed civil libertarians" expectations. The title misleads in two ways. First, though the book touches on various counterterrorism policies, two predominate: (1) the administration's expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; and (2) its effort, abandoned in the face of congressional opposition, to close Gitmo and to release or try the suspected terrorists there in civilian court. Second, the book shows that the White House was not willing to run much political risk in these areas. Its soul was elsewhere.

Before turning to Klaidman's treatment of those choices, it is worth putting them in the context of Obama's overall national security policies. Even when he took office, there was ample evidence that his dovish positions would not outlast their political convenience. He had already reversed himself on the Bush administration's National Security Agency warrantless surveillance program, having voted in the Senate to legalize the program and shield telecommunications companies from liability for facilitating it. Obama's position on Iraq had not been risky when he took it as an Illinois state senator, and it proved essential to winning the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton. He never complained about fighting endless wars of occupation in the name of counterterrorism. He argued rather that Iraq had taken attention and resources from that sort of war in Afghanistan. His positions on Gitmo and interrogation were mainstream; John McCain's were similar. Obama's vice president, secretary of state, and most of his national security appointees had hawkish records.

As Dick Cheney has gleefully noted, President Obama's counter-terrorism policies have mostly continued the Bush administration's. In several areas, this White House has proven more aggressive. Obama repeatedly signed extensions of the PATRIOT Act. The Obama Department of Justice still avails itself of the States Secrets privilege to block lawsuits that might expose things it wants hidden. Justice decided against both prosecuting CIA interrogators that used coercive interrogation tactics with the Bush administration's dubious legal sanction and indicting anyone for the deaths of several prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan seemingly as a result of unsanctioned interrogation methods.

In number and location, President Obama has greatly expanded drone strikes. His lawyers repeat the Bush administration's claim that the authorization of military force passed in 2001, where Congress legalized war against the organizers of the September 11 attacks and those who harbored them, has no geographic or temporal limit and allows the military to kill or indefinitely detain anyone the president wants, including U. …

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