Tag Archives: war on terror

Joe Biden: Our Secret Weapon On The War On Terror

One of the great ironies of this presidential campaign is that President Obama, who won election in 2008 in part due to his promise to reverse his predecessor George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy, is now trumpeting his aggressive war on terrorism.  As I’ve documented in previous posts, Obama has adopted and in some cases expanded on many of Bush’s foreign policy precedents, including an increased reliance on  drone strikes, even when it involves violating other states’ national sovereignty or targeting American citizens.  The centerpiece of this campaign, of course, is Obama’s decision to send the Navy Seals into Pakistan to assassinate Osama Bin Laden.  As the following pictures indicate, the decision to send the Seals into Pakistan to kill Bin Laden was fraught with tension.

Remember that 3 a.m. phone call?  Obama handled it, but Hillary was listening in.

What many people don’t realize is how involved Vice President Joe Biden was in training the Seals.  Here he is giving pointers to some recent recruits.  Note how comfortable he is handling his assault rifle!


Looking at these pictures, you can understand why our Navy Seals are willing to put their life on the line for our country. Joe is one inspirational dude!

Joe Biden. He’s high-fiving America. (Hat tip to Kate Hamilton).

I should probably clarify that these pictures come from the Vice President’s annual beach bash.

Reportedly, the event is a lot of fun for the kids and VP too.  Go get ’em Joe!

Why Obama Continues Bush’s Foreign Policy

Against the backdrop of today’s joint Obama-al Maliki press conference it is worth noting that perhaps the strongest portion of Obama’s presidential record so far has been his handling of foreign policy. Public opinion polls give the President much higher marks for his conduct of foreign policy than of domestic issues, and some of his most notable policy successes – killing Bin Laden, overthrowing Gadhafi – have taken place abroad. The irony, of course, is that Obama’s success in this policy realm has come largely by building on the foundation laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush rather than dismantling it. And when Obama has sought to deviate from the path charted by Bush, more often than not he’s been unsuccessful.  Continuity, then, and not change, has been the byword of Obama’s foreign policy.

The most immediate reminder of this will occur at the end of this month, when after nine years, the last of the U.S military forces in Iraq will return home.  At its peak, the U.S. had over 170,000 troops in Iraq – now it is down to about 6,000. (The U.S. will retain a sizable force of military trainers and other civilian support staff, in addition to its diplomatic corps, although the exact size and composition is a matter still under negotiation.)   The troop withdrawal, of course, is based on the status of forces agreement negotiated by Bush with the Iraqis – an agreement the Obama administration had hoped to amend to allow some U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq to prevent a return to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in recent years.  The Iraqi government, however, proved unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to the U.S., and so Obama will largely adhere to Bush’s original withdrawal schedule.  In terms of electoral politics, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing – the U.S. military presence in Iraq was not very popular, and the military withdrawal allows Obama to keep a campaign promise to wind down the Iraqi war.

There are many other areas of continuity between Bush and Obama in the conduct of foreign policy.  Obama has expanded Bush’s use of drones as both offensive weapons in the War on Terror, but also in intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations.  Although Obama purportedly closed secret CIA prisons holding suspected terrorists, he continues the policy of rendition under which suspected terrorists can be sent to foreign prisons for interrogation.  He has authorized the use of military commissions to try some terrorists, and – with the courts’ consent – supports the Bush policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charge. Despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and many Democrats, he signed a four-year extension of the Patriot act which, among other provisions, provides federal authorities roving wiretap power to listen in on conversations of foreign suspects even when they change phones or locations, and gives the government the authority to investigate foreigners who have no known affiliation with terrorist groups. (To do so, however, requires approval from a secret federal court.)

In some instances, Obama has out-Bushed Bush in the conduct of the war on terror.  In Afghanistan, of course, Obama built up the U.S. military presence in order to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation there, and thus lay the groundwork for an earlier U.S. withdrawal.  To date, Obama appears committed to the withdrawal schedule although his commanders on the ground are fighting a rearguard action in order to extend the U.S. presence there. Perhaps the most notable foreign policy success, of course, was the killing of Bin Laden, which required violating Pakistan’s airspace. And, in perhaps the most dramatic example of Obama’s willingness to push the limits of his authority, he authorized the assassination of an American citizen overseas who was suspected of actively working as a terrorist.

When Obama has sought to step back from Bush-era policies governing the War on Terror, however, he has often been unsuccessful.   After months of wrangling with Congress, Obama has implicitly admitted that Guantanamo Bay prison will not be closed, and in fact will continue to hold high value targets who may be caught in the anti-terror campaign. His effort to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civil court collapsed in face of domestic opposition from New York officials.  And even Obama’s decree banning the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is now under reconsideration in the Republican House.

What explains this continuity in foreign policy between a Republican and a Democratic President? Why was Obama largely unsuccessful when he did try to break with his predecessor’s policies? At the most fundamental level, it reflects the common pressures both Bush and Obama feel, as chief executive and commander in chief, to protect the nation against attack. Political scientists have long debated whether the president wields a greater panoply of powers in the foreign versus domestic realm.  Depending on who one consults (and when), presidents are either characterized as imperial (think FDR, Nixon or Bush) or imperiled (Ford or Carter) in their ability to conduct foreign policy.  I’ve long argued that this debate misses the crucial aspect of foreign policy that differentiates it from domestic issues as seen from the president’s perspective:  because the repercussions of a foreign policy failure are far more damaging not to just to him (someday her) – but to the nation, presidents feel they have no choice but to expand their foreign policy powers as much as political constraints allow.  Put another way, they don’t feel nearly as powerful in foreign affairs as they think they should be to meet expectations. From the perspective of one sitting in the Oval Office, the constraints on the president’s ability to protect the nation feel far more onerous because the burden of responsibility that weighs on the president is so much greater.

Because Bush was the one in power when 9-11 occurred, he endured most of the political fallout resulting from his desire to meet the new expectations associated with fighting a different type of war.   The ensuing debate over how to balance the desire to give the President the powers necessary to prevent another attack with the need to hold him accountable for utilizing those powers was politically costly to Bush, but in the end a framework for balancing energy and accountability was developed.  That debate continues today, but mostly in fine tuning the measures negotiated between Bush, Congress and the courts in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The most recent manifestation, of course, is Obama’s threat to veto the military authorization bill because it limits his flexibility in handling suspected terrorists. Obama’s opposition to a provision in the bill allowing Americans captured on American soil to be held in military custody without charge is only partly motivated by a concern for civil liberties. Of greater concern to Obama are the limits the bill places on him in his ability to prosecute the War on Terror.

In this desire for maximum flexibility, Obama is no different from Bush.  Indeed, Bush did not just bequeath Obama hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the backdrop of a global war on terror – he also handed over a set of policy tools, forged in heated debate between our governing institutions,  for fighting those wars.  For the most part, Obama has chosen to use those tools because, as did Bush, he feels more than does anyone else the pressure to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.

When it comes to foreign policy, presidents may appear to be imperial – but they feel anything but.

And Now For Some Controversy: Bush, Obama and the War on Terror

Earlier this year, I wrote (see here) an op-ed piece for our campus newspaper laying out my expectations for the Obama presidency.  Probably my most controversial prediction, and one that elicited more than a little negative reaction from some of my colleagues, was the following: “Obama’s foreign policy in its broad outlines is not likely to differ much from the Bush administration’s: no retreat from the global war on terror, a lengthy (albeit slightly diminished) presence in Iraq and a beefed up security commitment in Afghanistan.”  I concluded by writing, “Obama faces hard choices at home regarding closing Guantanamo Bay, restoring confidence in the nation’s intelligence services, and generally balancing the need to protect the nation’s borders without sacrificing basic civil liberties. He will find – as Bush did – that in the struggle to balance the two, the weight of constitutional responsibilities will push him toward securing national security first.”

Needless to say, many readers disagreed. If there was one aspect of Obama’s presidency that surely would differ from Bush’s, it would be his handling of foreign relations, particularly as they impacted civil liberties at home.  For many Obama supporters, the promise to reverse the Bush era policies on interrogation, military commissions, rendition and prisoner detention formed the foundation of his promise to be a “change” president.

It is still far too early in the Obama presidency to come to any final conclusions, of course, but not too early to assess my claim that, contrary to what many expected, Obama’s foreign policy will not significantly differ from Bush’s.

Let’s look at the Obama record to date on key foreign policy decision related to the war on terror and civil liberties, and compare it to Bush’s:

1. Closing Guantanamo Bay prison: During the campaign, Obama criticized the use of Guantanamo (Gitmo) to hold enemy combatants for extended periods of time, arguing that it became an unwelcome symbol of the Bush administration’s willingness to violate accepted international norms for treating prisoners.  In his second day as president Obama issued an order to close Gitmo within a year. As I have long taught my students, however, a president’s executive orders carry very little weight unless they are in accord with the preferences of (or not actively opposed by) Congress. Although Obama’s executive order met with initial bipartisan congressional support, there was some concern that Obama had not yet adequately addressed what to do with the detainees there.  That concern became a full-fledged political problem for Obama within the last week when an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress signaled their opposition to closing the prison until Obama comes up with a plan for dealing with the roughly 240 individual still held there. Two days ago, by a vote of 90-6, the Senate denied Obama’s request for $80 million to close the prison. That vote came on the heels of similar vote in the House last week. The problem, from Congress’ perspective (among both Democrats and Republicans) is the political cost of relocating these detainees to mainland prisons – no one wants to accept suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in their backyard. The issue is further complicated by the leak of an unreleased Pentagon report that estimates that about 1 in 7, or roughly 70 of the 534 detainees already released from U.S. detention facilities including Gitmo are now engaged in terrorism or related acts. Understandably, politicians are leery of being accused of releasing someone who may perpetrate the next 9-11 attack.

Bush, you will recall, also advocated closing of Gitmo, but not until the cases of those held there were disposed through trials by military commissions and/or an alternative location for holding detainees could be found.  We see, then, that Obama is discovering what Bush realized: that Gitmo appears to be a horrible choice for holding enemy combatants – except when compared to the alternatives. It is one thing to say you will close Gitmo – quite another to do it. Because Obama made closing Gitmo a symbol of change, I do not doubt that in the end he will follow through on this promise.  But it will require the expenditure of tremendous political capital, and will likely not occur on his preferred timetable.

2. Ending the use of certain “enhanced interrogation procedures”, such as waterboarding, that many believe constitute torture. Obama also issued an executive order on his second day in office requiring that the Army field manual be used as the guide for terrorism interrogations, thus apparently ending the Bush-era practice of waterboarding prisoners.  As you’ll recall that technique was used, sometimes repeatedly, on at least three of the several hundred enemy noncombatants captured during the war on terror.  Despite his belief that waterboarding is torture, Obama has  repeatedly said that he will not pursue charges against anyone who used this or similar interrogation techniques, and he has opposed calls from members of his own party and from the netroots to investigate the use of these practices.  One reason for his reluctance to do so may be his realization that leading Democrats – as indicated by the recent controversy regarding Nancy Pelosi – may have tacitly endorsed the use of such techniques.

3. Rendition:  At the same time that he outlawed waterboarding, Obama also appeared to establish a potential loophole by allowing the continuation of rendition, a policy that allows the CIA to capture suspected terrorists and hold them for short periods in jails in other countries.  Although Obama’s executive order states that: “(a) CIA Detention.  The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.”, it also declares that “(g)  The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in section 4(a) of this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Critics argue that this simply allows the CIA to oversee the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by third parties on captured enemy combatants before transferring them to U.S. facilities – exactly the policy the Bush administration was accused of employing.

4. Military Commissions: In a decision that deeply disappointed civil libertarians, Obama decided last week to revive the use of military commissions first established by the Bush administration, and later ratified in revised form by Congress, to try some of the detainees currently held at Gitmo.  Obama has promised to build in more safeguards, including restrictions on the use of information obtained through torture, to protect the rights of those enemy combatants who will be tried using military commissions.  But he has accepted the Bush argument that, as enemy combatants, these detainees cannot be tried under regular civil or military courts. This despite saying during the campaign that “It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Upon reviewing the policy, however, Obama has apparently agreed with Bush that some detainees simply cannot be tried through these other avenues.

5. Iraq withdrawal. I’ve blogged previously on this issue, so won’t go into detail except to say that increasingly it appears that U.S. combat troops won’t be leaving Iraq by the date or in the numbers that Obama hoped for during the campaign trail.  It now appears that the U.S. will miss the June deadline for a complete withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities, and there remains significant debate whether Obama will even be able to hold to the Bush-negotiated deadline of removing all combat troops by the end of 2011.  It may be that in order to appear to meet the deadline, the Obama administration will have to fudge the definition of “combat soldiers” in a way that makes it appear that all such soldiers have been withdrawn. His own military commanders continue to make the case for slowing the withdrawal in order to make sure that gains from the surge do not dissipate when U.S. troops withdraw.

We see, then, that Obama moved quickly upon taking office to remove the most controversial symbols of the Bush-era war on terror.  Moreover, in his rhetoric, especially when speaking abroad, Obama has been quick to note the changes in U.S. policy and to condemn Bush-era practices that violated international accords. But when looking at the substance of actually policy change, there has been much less than meets the eye. In fact, what is striking – given how Obama supporters viewed his candidacy – is how much continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies there has been when it comes to conducting the war on terror.  Who would have predicted this?  (Hint: see above!)

How can this be?  What explains Obama’s reluctance to reverse the major polices underlying Bush’s War on Terror?  It is easy to condemn Obama for failing to fulfill what many, particularly Democrats on the Left, thought he would do as president. The reason he has not done so, however, is not that he was not sincere when making his campaign promises to change the Bush policies governing the war on terror. Instead the explanation is rooted in a point I return to again and again, but one that bears repeating: campaigning is not the same as governing.  When he became president, he assumed a responsibility, and a perspective on politics, that is simply unimaginable on the campaign trail.  More than any single individual in our nation, it is the President who bears the burden of protecting the security of our country.  That vantage point is unique among elected officials; it is not shared by anyone else, and it permeates everything presidents do.  This is not to say that presidents are more powerful in foreign policy – in a later post I’ll make the claim that their foreign policy powers are actually quite weak.  But they do bear a sense of responsibility that Congress, as a collective body, simply doesn’t feel as acutely.

Harry Truman was once interviewed about his decision to go ahead with the development of the H-bomb.  How could he justify the decision?  He replied that he felt it was his responsibility, as president, not to tie the hands of his presidential successors – he owed it to them to make sure they had every tool available to protect the country. His first thought, then, was of the individuals with whom he shared the office of the presidency. Invariably, when presidents are faced with a major foreign policy crisis, the first person they consult, if possible, is a former president.  And why not? No one else really understands what they are going through.

Let me be clear here. I do not mean to denigrate the importance of the symbolic acts Obama has taken so far; the banning of waterboarding, at least directly by the U.S., and the promise to close Gitmo, are significant steps in signaling his intention to reverse, at least in name, the most controversial of the Bush-era policies.  But it is also the case that substantively his policies to date have proved far less of a reversal of Bush’s policies than Obama’s supporters hoped.  Note that Obama does not lack the authority to fulfill those expectations – he could have ended the use of rendition, not revived military commissions, and directed his military commanders to meet his 6-month timetable for withdrawing all combat forces from Iraq.  Despite the media focus on Cheney’s claim that Obama has weakened U.S. security, the plain fact is that most leading Republicans support most of Obama’s policies discussed above precisely because they have not substantially reversed Bush’s.  Put another way, if John McCain had been elected president, it is probable that we would be seeing almost the same policy steps undertaken that Obama has pursued to date.

It is easy to criticize Obama – and anyone who follows the netroots realizes he has angered the Left with his failure to reverse Bush’s policies.  But that criticism, I think, is misdirected. The reason why Obama has largely continued Bush’s foreign policy is because he perceives the same threats, and operates under the same constraints, as Bush did.  Safeguarding the nation is not, in the end, a partisan issue.  It transcends pure politics, even though presidents cannot ignore politics in pursuing this overriding goal. It is why Obama attacks the symbols of Bush’s policies without significantly changing their substance.

The surprise is not that President Obama continues Bush’s foreign policies in the main – it is that anyone ever thought it would be otherwise.