At this early stage, it's hard to predict what kind of president Barack Obama will be over the next four years. He seems to be abandoning, at last, the hesitancy and timidity of his first term. And in the long list of initiatives in his State of the Union address last week, he gave us a sense of where he wants to go.
While some of what he said was encouraging, some was troubling.
I liked the push for gun control, pre-school, a more sensible tax system, an increase in the minimum wage, and an end to the attempts to prevent Americans from voting.
I liked his call for dealing with climate change. But I was sorry to hear him push for more natural gas drilling. Not now. Not until we know whether we can do it safely and in an environmentally sound way. Sadly, Obama seems to be more enchanted with fossil-fuel development than with environmental protection.
I liked his appeal to the common good, his insistence "that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others...."
And I found a bit of hope in his hint (and it wasn't much more than that) that his administration might reconsider its counterterrorism approach. He said he wants to be sure that "our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances."
I hope so. But unfortunately, he prefaced that statement by saying his administration "has worked tirelessly to forge a durable policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts."
It looks more like his administration has followed the example of his predecessor: working tirelessly to devise ways to justify its counterterrorism efforts. As a recent New York Times editorial said, the administration's document justifying its actions "had the air of a legal justification written after the fact for a policy decision that had already been made, and brought back unwelcome memories of memos written for President George W. Bush to justify illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, kidnapping, abuse, and torture."
Under current, "justified" policies, in addition to (and sometimes rather than) troops on the ground, we have CIA operatives and unmanned drones going after human targets. Those targets – which can include American citizens in other countries – are selected and snuffed out, with no hearing, no trial.
Who can pick the targets? According to the Justice Department document made public earlier this month, it will be "an informed, high-level official of the United States."
And as a Times article noted last spring, the top Selector is the president of the United States. With no Congressional or court oversight. No appeal.
"Having the executive being the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner, all in one, is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country," Maine Senator Angus King said during his questioning of John Brennan this month.
"The Fifth Amendment is pretty clear: no deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law," said King. "And we're depriving American citizens of their life when we target them with a drone attack."
Supporters of the Obama and Bush policies argue that we are involved in a new kind of war – not against nations, but against individual terrorists scattered around the world –and that this battle requires a new kind of warfare.
Well, yes. But those who wage that battle cannot ignore the US Constitution, international law, and human decency. Nor can they ignore long-term consequences. And there is already plenty of evidence that our tactics are creating new terrorists as we eliminate existing ones.
It is past time for a broad public discussion of our new kind of warfare – and for Congressional oversight of the administration's national-security policies. Yes, there is risk to involving Congress. But checks and balances are a foundation of our government, and the risk to the nation of circumventing them is far greater.
We're in a new kind of war. But those we cannot ignore the US Constitution, international law, and human decency.