War on Terror

Obama's Outgoing Attitude on War and Terrorism: Do as He Says, Not as He Did

A speech on respecting rule of law and transparency from an administration that did neither.


Barack Obama
Monica Herndon/ZUMA Press/Newscom

It looks like President Barack Obama will be leaving office the same way he arrived: overestimating his actual commitment to rule of law and government transparency.

That's one takeaway from the president's counterterrorism speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Florida, yesterday. As is typical of an Obama speech, particularly one coming as his administration winds down, it's heavy on summarizing his successes and calling on actions from Congress, yet flat out either refuses to acknowledge or is quick to justify his misuses of power.

Obama raised the issue of America's rule of law, clearly an attempt to pre-critique the incoming Donald Trump administration, given its apparent lack of interest in civil liberties. On the same day Obama gave his speech, one of the CIA psychologists responsible for the use of waterboarding as an interrogation tool defended coercive techniques when speaking at the American Enterprise Institute and encouraged Trump to consider harsher methods.

But getting back to Obama, here's what he said on upholding the rule of law:

[W]e need the wisdom to see that upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness; in the long term, it is our greatest strength. The whole objective of these terrorists is to scare us into changing the nature of who we are and our democracy. And the fact is, people and nations do not make good decisions when they are driven by fear. These terrorists can never directly destroy our way of life, but we can do it for them if we lose track of who we are and the values that this nation was founded upon.

And I always remind myself that as Commander-in-Chief, I must protect our people, but I also swore an oath to defend our Constitution. And over these last eight years, we have demonstrated that staying true to our traditions as a nation of laws advances our security as well as our values.

Reminder: This is a president who has developed a complex system by which he executes suspected terrorists in countries where America is not legally involved in a war through the use of drone strikes in a system that is both deliberately secretive but also not subject to review by the judicial branch. The Department of Justice under Obama has, in fact, used claims of national security to try to keep judges from even being able to hear cases connected to the constitutionality of some of its practices.

Furthermore, this is a president who oversaw military intervention in Libya without authorization by Congress. And in this very speech he calls on Congress to use its authority to determine whether to allow for military force, an absurd incongruity Tim Carney makes note of in the Washington Examiner.

Obama calls for an updated Authorized Use of Force (the Congressional authorization for warmaking) but stubbornly clings to an insistence that everything he's been doing is already authorized. It's a muddled argument. Either the president's military actions have been legal and a new authorization isn't needed, or the president's military actions have not been legal (in which case he should stop). He even recently added, via executive declaration, a terrorist group in Somalia that didn't even exist at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks to the list of authorized targets.

Here's what the president had to say about his administration's transparency:

Transparency and accountability serve our national security not just in times of peace, but, more importantly, in times of conflict. And that's why we've made public information about which terrorist organizations we're fighting and why we're fighting them. We've released assessments of non-combatants killed in our operations, taken responsibility when mistakes are made. We've declassified information about interrogation methods that were wrong so we learn from past mistakes. And yesterday, I directed our government for the first time to release a full description of the legal and policy frameworks that guide our military operations around the world.

This is a remarkable paragraph in that it completely and utterly ignores that the administration has only made information about its practices public after years of resistance, even fighting lawsuits to keep from making information available to the public. The assessment of non-combatants killed in drone strikes was dumped on the American public on an afternoon right before an Independence Day holiday weekend. And even that came after years of independent international groups providing their own counts and after people leaking inside information about how the drone strikes work and the many, many flaws with the system.

The president defends drone strikes in this very speech, right before the previous quote:

Now, under rules that I put in place and that I made public, before any strike is taken outside of a warzone, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured. And while nothing is certain in any strike, and we have acknowledged that there are tragic instances where innocents have been killed by our strikes, this is the highest standard that we can set. Nevertheless, we still have critics who suggest that these strikes are wrong. And I say to them, you have to weigh the alternatives. Drone strikes allow us to deny terrorists a safe haven without airstrikes, which are less precise, or invasions that are much more likely to kill innocent civilians as well as American servicemembers.

So the actions that we've taken have saved lives at home and abroad. But the point is, is that we do have to be careful to make sure that when we take actions, we're not alienating local populations, because that will serve as recruitment for new terrorists.

Again, the making of the rules "public" came after a lengthy period where the administration refused to admit that these drone strikes were even happening and only after they were independently leaked to the media.

And drone strikes are being used as a recruitment tool to inspire terrorists! These two paragraphs are so bizarre. The president in the speech acknowledges internal radicalization that has resulted in domestic terror attacks in Boston and Orlando under his administration, but doesn't acknowledge that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, during his 911 calls during the attack, demanded that America stop its military strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, we should avoid such a thing as a terrorist's veto. Military interventions may be why Mateen justified his murders to himself, but that doesn't really mean we should accept or alter our practices based on the ravings of a madman. And Obama's refusal to elevate the terrorist threat presented by the Islamic State to the panic level some others would is an admirable and important response for a sober leader.

Nevertheless, Obama's suggestion that drone strikes are less likely to lead to bad consequences is the invocation of a talking point based on the reality that Americans don't readily see the consequences. We don't see our soldiers getting killed and we don't even hear about their innocents getting killed. But we also get less information about terror plots because we're killing the sources and we're less aware of how it might be fomenting anger at us in other countries.

In the end, when the president calls for Congress to play a role in war and counterterror activity, it's clear from his speech that he believes that Congress's role is to authorize it. He calls for an "update" of an AUMF, not for its revocation and it's certainly not for the purposes of restraining his actions but to give them more legal cover. When Congress doesn't act he sees it as "obstructionism" and not Congress essentially telling him "no." Mind you, Congress' failure to do anything one way or another in regards to the president expanding his own military authority is itself a problem, but Obama certainly thinks everything he's done was appropriate.

This is the presidency Trump will be inherited, one that is going out criticizing Trump for not respecting the rule of law before he even takes power (which is a legitimate concern), but also declines any sort of introspection for its own transgressions. They were the "right people," so giving them executive leeway led to the right outcomes. Trump and his incoming cabinet are not the right people, so now the danger suddenly exists.

Read Obama's speech here.