How Did Obama Become Our Most Imperial President?
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It’s easy, then, to forget that the Bush era wasn’t all crash-and-burn, that the third of their hubristic fantasies proved a remarkable, if barely noticed, success. Because that success never fully registered amid successive disasters and defeats, it’s been difficult for Americans to grasp the “imperial” part of the Obama presidency.
Remember that Cheney and his cohorts took power in 2001 convinced that, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, American presidents had been placed in “chains.” As soon as 9/11 hit, they began, as they put it, to “take the gloves off.” Their deepest urge was to use “national security” to free George W. Bush and his Pax Americana successors of any constraints.
From this urge flowed the decision to launch a “Global War on Terror” -- that is, a “wartime” with no possible end that would leave a commander-in-chief president in the White House till hell froze over. The construction of Guantanamo and the creation of “ black sites” from Poland to Thailand, the president’s own private offshore prison system, followed naturally, as did the creation of his own privately sanctioned form of (in)justice and punishment, a torture regime.
At the same time, they began expanding the realm of presidentially ordered “covert” military operations (most of which were, in the end, well publicized) -- from drone wars to the deployment of special operations forces. These were signposts indicating the power of an unchained president to act without constraint abroad. Similarly, at home, the Bush administration began expanding what would once have been illegal surveillance of citizens and other forms of presidentially inspired overreach. They began, in other words, treating the U.S. as if it were part of an alien planet, as if it were, in some sense, a foreign country and they the occupying power.
With a cowed Congress and a fearful, distracted populace, they undoubtedly were free to do far more. There were few enough checks and balances left to constrain a war president and his top officials. It turned out, in fact, that the only real checks and balances they felt were internalized ones, or ones that came from within the national security state itself, and yet those evidently did limit what they felt was possible.
The Obama Conundrum
This, then, was what Barack Obama inherited on entering the Oval Office: an expanding, but not yet fully expansive, commander-in-chief presidency, which, in retrospect, seemed to fit him like a... glove. Of course, he also inherited the Bush administration’s domestic failures and those in the Greater Middle East, and they overshadowed what he’s done with that commander-in-chief presidency.
It’s true that, with President Truman’s decision to go to war in Korea in 1950, Congress’s constitutional right to declare war (rather than rubberstamp a presidential announcement of the same) went by the boards. So there’s a distinct backstory to our present imperial presidency. Still, in our era, presidential war-making has become something like a 24/7 activity.
Once upon a time, American presidents didn’t consider micro-managing a permanent war state as a central part of their job description, nor did they focus so unrelentingly on the U.S. military and the doings of the national security state. Today, the president’s word is death just about anywhere on the planet and he exercises that power with remarkable frequency. He appears in front of “the troops” increasingly often and his wife has made their wellbeing part of her job description. He has at his command expanded “covert” powers, including his own private armies: a more militarized CIA and growing hordes of special operations forces, 60,000 of them, who essentially make up a “covert” military inside the U.S. military.