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Why the Commander-in-Chief's War Powers Have Crossed the Line

When the president can legally send killer robots to assassinate US citizens, it's time to start worrying.

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:56 PM EDT

In effect, he also has his own private intelligence outfits, including most recently a newly formed Defense Clandestine Service at the Pentagon focused on non-war zone intelligence operations (especially, so the reports go, against China and Iran). Finally, he has what is essentially his own expanding private (robotic) air force: drones.

He can send his drone assassins and special ops troops just about anywhere to kill just about anyone he thinks should die, national sovereignty be damned. He firmly established his "right" to do this by going after the worst of the worst, killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with special operations forces and an American citizen and jihadi, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen with a drone.

At the moment, the president is in the process of widening his around-the-clock "covert" air campaigns. Almost unnoted in the US, for instance, American drones recently carried out a strike in the Philippines killing 15 and the Air Force has since announced a plan to boost its drones there by 30 percent. At the same time, in Yemen, as previously in the Pakistani borderlands, the president has just given the CIA and the US Joint Operations Command the authority to launch drone strikes not just against identified "high-value" al-Qaeda "targets," but against general "patterns of suspicious behavior." So expect an escalating drone war there not against known individuals, but against groups of suspected evildoers (and as in all such cases, innocent civilians as well).

This is another example of something that would be forbidden at home, but is now a tool of unchecked presidential power elsewhere in the world: profiling.

As with Bush junior, the only thing that constrains the president and his team, it seems, is some set of internalized checks and balances. That's undoubtedly why, before he ordered the successful drone assassination of Awlaki, lawyers from the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, intelligence agencies, and the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel held meetings to produce a 50-page memorandum providing a "legal" basis for the president to order the assassination of a US citizen, a document, mind you, that will never be released to the public.

In truth, at this point the president could clearly have ordered those deaths without such a document. Think of it as the presidential equivalent of a guilty conscience, but count on this: when those drones start taking out "behaviors" in Yemen and elsewhere, there will be no stream of 50-page memorandums generated to cover the decisions. That's because as you proceed down such a path, as your acts become ever more the way of your world, your need to justify them (to yourself, if no one else) lessens.

That path, already widening into a road, may, someday, become the killing equivalent of an autobahn. In that case, making such decisions will be ever easier for an imperial president as American society grows yet more detached from the wars fought and operations launched in its name. In terms of the president's power to kill by decree, whether Obama gets his second term or Mitt Romney steps into the Oval Office, the reach of the commander-in-chief presidency and the "covert" campaigns, so secret they can't even be acknowledged in a court of law, so public they can be boasted about, will only increase.

This is a dangerous development, which leaves us in the grip—for now—of what might be called the Obama conundrum. At home, on issues of domestic importance, Obama is a hamstrung, hogtied president, strikingly checked and balanced. Since the passage of his embattled healthcare bill, he has, in a sense, been in chains, able to accomplish next to nothing of his domestic program. Even when trying to exercise the unilateral powers that have increasingly been invested in presidents, what he can do on his own has proven exceedingly limited, a series of tiny gestures aimed at the largest of problems. And were Mitt Romney to be elected, given congressional realities, this would be unlikely to change in the next four years.

On the other hand, the power of the president as commander-in-chief has never been greater. If Obama is the president of next to nothing on the domestic policy front (but fundraising for his second term), he has the powers previously associated with the gods when it comes to war-making abroad. There, he is the purveyor of life and death. At home, he is a hamstrung weakling, at war he is—to use a term that has largely disappeared since the 1970s—an imperial president.

Such contradictions call for resolution and that should worry us all.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books). Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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