When The New York Times revealed not long ago that President Obama was personally selecting which suspected terrorists should live and which should die, everyone – supporters and critics – treated it as a national security story, period.
I saw it as something else.
Oh, yes, the Times story clearly had to do with national security, with the president cast as military planner in chief – or judge, jury and executioner, if you took a law enforcement view of the now (we are told) officially concluded Global War on Terror.
And, yes, the story was one in a flurry that blew through the media at the same time about the inner workings of our intelligence and military operations. Together they had Democratic senator Diane Feinstein and many serious officials in both parties fuming that whoever leaked such sensitive information had compromised the men and women who risk their lives daily defending our freedoms.
And, yes, together they gave rise to an uneasy sense throughout Washington that this White House was willing to throw national security under the bus in order to bolster the president’s credentials as a protector of national security.
But, as I say, I had a different reaction to the president shuffling the “baseball cards” of death.
To me the White House generated portrait of Mr. Obama personally picking the targets of drone strikes reflects his most disturbing characteristic – a taste for the arbitrary exercise of power.
A normal approach to something like the drone attacks would be for a president to issue a national security directive. The directive would lay out the parameters of policy regarding when to capture terrorists and when to use drone strikes – and for the kinds of people to be targeted for each. Why a formal document? It facilitates debate and review, within the administration during the formulation of the policy, with members of Congress and others when it is published. Even secret directives will normally be shared with the congressional intelligence committees, opening the way for debate and discussion.
George W. Bush’s chief presidential speechwriter and now a washingtonpost.com columnist Mark Thiessen has pounded away for more than two years that always killing terrorists, never capturing them, hurts our national security. It deprives us of intelligence that we might otherwise obtain by capturing at least some of these men. This is one price of adopting a policy without normal consultation either within the government or with Congress.
Beyond the policy, it is one thing for a president to approve or disapprove a military mission developed in line with policy guidance with clearly stated national security objectives. It is very different for him to say, with no check or balance, “kill this one and this one but not this one.” No president should seek that kind of power, but Mr. Obama has.
The taste for arbitrary power goes well beyond targeting drone strikes.
More than a few constitutional scholars and commentators (John Yoo and Hugh Hewitt for example) have pointed out that the president acted outside his authority last week in announcing that he would no longer, in the words of Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” in matters of immigration.
But, then, what’s new for him in that?
How was it different from making recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess?
How was it different from allowing his EPA appointees to regulate CO2 as a pollutant (it is a greenhouse gas, after all), despite Congress’s rejection of such proposals?
How was it different than allowing his attorney general to block states from insuring that their elections are honest and fair by requiring picture IDs at the polls?
How was it different from using government power to strong-arm insurance companies and oil producers not to give to Mr. Romney, as the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel has reported (April 28, Potomac Watch column).
Don’t the president’s menacing and false statements about the Supreme Court, judicial review and the upcoming decision on health care legislation look like part of a campaign of intimidation — and doesn’t his stance toward the judiciary look like another aspect of the arbitrary exercise of power?
“Let us never forget,” wrote Joseph Story, one of our history’s most revered Supreme Court justices, “that our constitutions of government are solemn instruments… not to be frittered away to please the demagogues of the day…. They are of no man’s private interpretation. They are ordained by the will of the people; and can be changed only by the sovereign command of the people.”
It is a dangerous trait we see here: a taste for arbitrary power in a president of the United States.