President Obama's term in office began, oddly, with winning a Nobel Peace Prize and will end with him handing over to Donald Trump the reins of an executive branch whose powers to make war he has dramatically expanded.
Strangely, unlike in 2012 when Obama thought he might lose to Mitt Romney and thus created a "drone rule book" to discourage future presidents from abusing the power to wage clandestine war, the president has recently expanded the power and scope of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct combat operations outside of the fields of battle in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
The Washington Post reports that JSOC's newly created "Counter-External Operations Task Force" can "can sidestep regional commanders…for the sake of speed," instead reporting directly to the Pentagon.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko explained that this change elevates JSOC "to a truly global combatant command, with the resources and authority to strike targets seemingly anywhere, rather than only after being placed under the authority of a regional combatant command." Zenko adds:
Obama administration lawyers and officials have always contended that there are no geographic limits to where U.S. forces may conduct operations against terrorism, with the battlefield being anywhere "from Boston to the FATA [Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas of Pakistan]" Now, it appears that it has set up an organizational command structure to support such limitless targeting.
Though the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to play up its role in ending the Iraq War, the fact is, we are still at war in Iraq, even if the name of the enemy continues to change. What's more, the Obama administration has expanded combat operations in Somalia to fight the Al Qaeda-offshoot Shabab, including "self-defense" airstrikes to assist foreign allies even when American troops face no risk.
Zenko notes that with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) forces deployed to 147 countries, the U.S. could invoke "self-defense" with an airstrike pretty much anywhere in the world.
While Obama's "kill list" hasn't led to any sustained mainstream concern (lawyers who work for the president can make just about anything "legal"), even when drones meant for "terrorists" kill civilians, the fact that these powers to make war will soon be in Donald Trump's hands is beginning to make people take notice that the executive branch has assumed far too much power.
Unfortunately, Obama will leave office much as he entered it, by expanding and consolidating executive authority even further than George W. Bush had, and thereby making it far easier for Trump to do the same.