Charlie Savage’s new history of the Obama administration’s war on terror is the kind of book that should be quoted at outdoor “citizen tribunals” and read aloud to throngs waving papier-mâché puppets of Skeletor-Obama.
Such demonstrations are not my kind of thing. I don’t think President Obama is a war criminal. Neither does Charlie Savage. But in his new book, “Power Wars,” the author makes a meticulous case that — with few exceptions — Obama preserved a long war on terror that many progressives in the 2000s regarded as criminal.
This was not necessarily how Obama set out to conduct his presidency, but as many generals are fond of saying, the enemy has a vote. As Savage, a reporter at the New York Times, wryly observes at the end of the book: “One way of looking at this is that Obama entrenched the Forever War. Another is that the Forever War ensnared him.”
This entrenchment and ensnarement is self-evident today. After all, Obama said the 2001 authorization for war against Al-Qaida applied to the special operations and air war he launched against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014. In fact, Obama was making his peace with Bush’s long war as early as Christmas Day, 2009, when a troubled young man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a plane over Detroit with a bomb in his underwear.
The underwear bombing incident was both a political and a policy jolt to Obama. The tug and pull between security and reform that existed in the first year of his presidency effectively ended then, according to Savage, and a kind of retrenchment began.
The value that Savage brings to his book is in reporting out how Obama’s lawyers, who were often the toughest critics of Bush when they were out of power, wrestled with and ultimately sanctioned this retrenchment.
To understand this process, one must begin with the Bush years. In his first term particularly, Bush asserted a limitless wartime authority to disregard Congress and existing law so as to wage the new war on terror. Over time, these powers were curtailed by the courts, Congress, political opposition and some of his own lawyers. By the time Obama came into office, many of the most controversial Bush-era programs were either approved by statute, such as the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which Obama voted for as a senator), or revoked altogether, such as the CIA’s use of waterboarding.
While Obama at times gave the impression that he shared the civil-liberties concerns of many of his supporters, he was less opposed as president to many of these programs than he was to the broader idea that the president’s wartime authorities allowed him to disregard existing statutes. In practice, this meant that Obama pursued a reform of process and not a curtailment of powers. This rule-of-law critique, as Savage calls it, helps explain how Obama often arrived at the same place as his predecessor on many of the activities and programs that outraged his base when they began under Bush.
There are two exceptions. The first is torture, which Obama banned on his second day in office. The other is the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which Obama promised to close on his second day in office. Obama tells Savage in the book that if he could do it all over again, he would have begun moving the detainees from Guantanamo in his first year, instead of waiting while Congress imposed new restrictions on such transfers.
In some cases though, Obama expanded the powers of the executive in the war on terror. For example, his policies allowed for the raw telephone records of Americans — collected by the NSA — to be shared with other government agencies like the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Obama’s Justice Department prosecuted more leakers of national security information than any of his predecessors. (Although these prosecutions stemmed from a Justice Department task force on leaks that began under Bush.) He and the CIA took advantage of improving technology and bipartisan support to expand the drone wars in Pakistan and Somalia.
The Obama approach did at times impose new limits on the long war. Savage recounts how the State Department’s general counsel, Harold Koh, pored over intelligence about the Somali Jihadist group Al-Shabab to determine which of its members could be targeted for drone strikes, as opposed to assuming that all members of the group could be targeted because of its connections to Al-Qaida. But this was an exception rather than a rule. Today Obama justifies his war on ISIL (which has split from Al-Qaida) with the same authorities Koh insisted would limit his war on Al-Shabab.
While Obama never asserted the Bush-era theory of unlimited wartime powers, he also has ignored the instructions of Congress when it suited him. He disregarded a statute, for example, that required his government to give a 30-day notice to Congress about the release of detainees from Guantanamo before he approved the prisoner swap that freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. In 2011, Obama began an air war in Libya even though the House later voted down an authorization for this war.
All of this suggests that Obama owes us an explanation. He came into office promising reform and, as recently as 2014, said it was time to take the country off a war footing. Today, though, Obama recognizes that his successor will inherit the long war he couldn’t end. Savage captures this disappointment in the final pages of the book when he describes how Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser and message guru, approaches this issue in interviews a year apart. In early 2014, Rhodes said Obama would like to leave the next president “with a counter-terrorism approach without necessarily being at war.” A year later, Rhodes conceded, “we may not be able to solve every legacy issue we inherited.” It would be nice if Obama explained why this long war is necessary, and why the law enforcement approach he tried to craft failed. In the meantime, we at least have Savage’s valuable history to illuminate those failures, even if Obama is loath to acknowledge them.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake writes about politics and foreign affairs.