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Obama’s Term-End Thoughts on Targeted Killing

Quinta Jurecic
Monday, October 17, 2016, 9:42 AM

You could be forgiven if, amidst all the allegations of groping, the Clinton-Trump debates, and the ongoing implosion of the Republican Party, you missed an extensive interview by Jonathan Chait with our current president in New York magazine earlier this month. You could also be forgiven if you wouldn’t have predicted that among the “five days that shaped [Obama’s] presidency,” Chait includes in his piece September 30, 2011, the day that a U.S.

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You could be forgiven if, amidst all the allegations of groping, the Clinton-Trump debates, and the ongoing implosion of the Republican Party, you missed an extensive interview by Jonathan Chait with our current president in New York magazine earlier this month. You could also be forgiven if you wouldn’t have predicted that among the “five days that shaped [Obama’s] presidency,” Chait includes in his piece September 30, 2011, the day that a U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

The president’s comments on targeted killing are worth reading in full. Let’s start with one particular statement, which stands out:

We can’t advertise everything that we’re doing without inhibiting our effectiveness in protecting the American people. But by the time I leave here, the American people are going to have a better sense of what their president is doing. Their president is going to have to be more accountable than he or she otherwise would have been. The world, I think, will have a better sense of what we’re trying to do and what we stand for.

Obama leaves his meaning here a little opaque. But the statement does suggest that he is planning to increase either the transparency of the targeted killing program or the program’s institutional restraints (or possibly both) before he leaves office. Alternately, he may be referring to recent changes already made to the program in terms of both transparency and institutionalization—including the newly declassified presidential policy guidance on targeting procedures and the release of casualty statistics for drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities in July—perhaps indicating that the administration implemented these changes with an eye toward the end of the president’s term and his legacy.

This instinct to impose new constraints as the Obama administration approaches its end is not new. Days after Obama secured reelection in 2012, the New York Times reported that his administration had looked into implementing greater restraints on targeted killing in the weeks before the November 6 election out of concern that Mitt Romney, and not Barack Obama, would be in charge of the Reapers and Predators on January 21.

At the time, that concern seemed more than a little conceited: a concrete reiteration of Obama’s apparent belief that he, and he alone, is possessed of the seriousness and moral ability to preside over a targeted killing program comparatively free of institutional constraint. The administration had created a program closely tied to the president’s own moral judgment and sense of responsibility, and it was unwilling to hand it over to another potential leader without increased constraints. Obama has consistently presented himself as a leader wracked by moral anguish—part president, part philosopher, a man who contemplates just war theory in the White House while also incinerating America’s enemies. The White House has always been keen to make clear that he finds the moral compromises he must necessarily make in order to govern acutely painful. This self-presentation has often seemed, in its worst form, something close to narcissism, a kind of moral preening. (I have written about this at length here and here and here.)

But now cometh Donald Trump as a contender for the presidency.

And the arrival on the scene of a man totally bereft of moral reflection and ability suggests that there may really be something to this notion of moral awareness as a crucial presidential characteristic. Whether Trump has rendered himself unelectable or not, he has come close enough to the highest office to grant a renewed urgency to the idea of “tyrant-proofing” the presidency—that is, implementing institutional constraints to prevent the potential destruction that might be brought about by a single individual’s evil or lack of judgment or evil. To point to one of many recent examples, Representative Ted Lieu even introduced a bill to prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional approval on the grounds that “a majority of Americans do not trust Republican Nominee Donald Trump with our nation’s nuclear arsenal.” (The bill will surely go nowhere, but the point stands.)

So perhaps in 2016 of all years, there really is something to Obama’s desire to implement greater political and institutional accountability for the targeted killing program before he leaves office. Obama’s poll numbers have performed exceedingly well this year, and the reason he looks so good surely has something to do with the fact that he is plainly serious, which is the essence of this self-presentation.

But given the administration’s behavior in October 2012, we can be reasonably confident that Obama would be thinking along these lines, no matter the identity of the Republican nominee for president—or that of the Democratic nominee, for that matter. After all, he seems to be talking about implementing these changes irrespective of who follows him in office. The distinction he is drawing here is not a distinction between a Democratic versus a Republican President. It’s between Barack Obama’s moral ability and that of everyone else.

Over the course of his interview with Chait, Obama repeatedly insists on the importance of anguish as a component of the targeted killing program. He refers to the danger of drone warfare becoming an “antiseptic” method of “disposing of enemies” (a pretty antiseptic phrase itself), and tells Chait, “I don’t ever want to get to the point where we’re that comfortable with killing.”

This is a key component of the president’s moral ability as the administration has presented it to the public: Obama’s ability to experience anguish, to deeply feel the responsibilities of his office and the moral compromises that those responsibilities entail rather than become inured to them.

That’s also one way to understand Obama’s description of the internal institutional processes guiding targeted killing in his interview with Chait. The president speaks at length about the importance of “trying to institutionalize rigorous debate,” at one point arguing, “I had to be self-critical and build a structure for effective, constructive criticism of decisions I might make, and make sure all viewpoints were heard, because frankly, I just couldn’t trust the noise out there.” In his phrasing, self-criticism reflects and is reflected by institutional mechanisms to ensure that countervailing voices are heard.

This issue comes up repeatedly in Charlie Savage’s book, Power Wars. In an interview with The Intercept, Savage provides a characteristic description of the administration’s focus on legal process, particularly as distinguishes the Obama White House from its predecessor:

So … the Bush administration goes to a John Yoo or a David Addington and he writes a two-page memo that says, “The president is commander-in-chief. We can do X. Let’s get lunch.” … And the Obama administration goes to its legal team with that proposition and they write a hundred page memo that agonizes over every nuance and permutation and is full of footnotes and goes through all of the possible objections and comes up with reasons why those objections don’t apply in this instance and finally concludes, “We can do X.”

Savage’s comments on the work of administration lawyers sounds a lot like institutionalized anguish. He’s describing something very much like a system designed to be deeply pained by the moral dilemmas inherent to national security policy and by the sometimes ugly necessities of wielding power. These legal deliberations internal to the executive branch function as a kind of stylized analogue to the presidential anguish at the top. The Aquinas President also has a staff of lawyers, studiously working through the statutory and constitutional nuances.

In this reading, the implementation of institutional constraints and increased transparency on the targeted killing program is a means by which to institutionalize Obama’s anguish, even if the next president may not be so morally elevated as to feel it.

But there’s another way to read Obama’s comments: the executive branch has turned inward, he seems to be saying, because the rest of government is not up to the discussion.

Obama tells Chait that he felt the need to create an internal structure for “rigorous debate” because of unwillingness among congressional Republicans to provide intellectually honest criticism. Notably, the president suggests that this internal structure has been at work on a range of foreign policy issues, including intervention in Libya and Syria as well as targeted killing. According to Obama:

I will say that what prompted a lot of the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this. And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.

The use of Congress’s failure to pass an ISIS AUMF as an example is both a bit rich and very telling. Given the administration’s insistence on its desire to “refine and ultimately repeal” the 2001 AUMF and its concurrent failure to exert any of the political effort necessary either to achieve that goal or actually pass an ISIS AUMF, it’s somewhat cheeky of Obama to chalk all this up to Congress’s moral and political failings. This is, after all, not exactly a case in which Congress turned down a good-faith effort to work alongside the White House, either to produce legislation or to act as a sounding board.

It’s also worth noting that while Obama tells Chait he’s “glad the left pushes me on this,” saying that widespread criticism of the drone program from the Left has prevented him from becoming “comfortable” with killing, he then goes on to say that the internal reforms to the program were precipitated not by criticism from the Left. Where did it come from? From Obama’s own “troubled” conscience—though outside criticism did push him to follow through with the reforms he had initiated.

Anguish again. Daniel Klaidman, in his book Kill or Capture, describes Obama as “struggl[ing] with national security dilemmas, sometimes to the point of Hamlet-like indecision.” If Obama is Hamlet, these other actors—whether the Left in the context of targeted killing or Congress in the context of an ISIS AUMF—serve principally as his Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, mere foils for the president’s moral psychodrama.

So perhaps internal reforms are not the back-up plan in the absence of useful debate. They are the first option, and are a means by which to institutionalize the president’s personal moral anguish. There is a preference here for self-scrutiny and internal contemplation—inward, rather than outward, facing debate.

The irony, of course, is that this inward-facing debate has been presented in a very public process: an interview with the President of the United States in a major publication. And that’s after many other such public processes: books, newspaper articles, leaks, and speeches. This has been one of the paradoxes of the Obama presidency on drone warfare: what we are told is a very private and personal moral struggle gets presented to the public at every occasion.

We will see what new reforms and transparency measures, if any, emerge from the White House before Inauguration Day. In the meantime, I have a suggestion: watch the recent film Eye in the Sky, a morality tale on targeted killing by drone in which the decision-makers are constantly wrestling not only with ethics, but also with how their choice to take or not take the shot will look—to the fellow members of their government, to the residents of the city under attack, to people around the world if video of the conflagration leaks to YouTube. And ask yourself this question: Is moral anguish good enough?

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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