Charlie Savage on Obama’s evolving thinking on terrorism


Michael Drew

Michael Drew is a Wisconsinite currently residing in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He enjoys thinking and writing about politics, history, and philosophy, listening to music and podcasts of all kinds, watching and occasionally playing sports, and playing the cello.

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    That the dynamic apparently also confirmed by a study of Brown voters was basic to Obama’s thinking always seemed obvious to me. Throughout this presidency, Obama has been more sensitive than the further left and fellow traveling libertarians of the danger a successful major terror attack in the U.S., or other setback on that order, would pose to his entire agenda and legacy, and even especially to a civil liberties and anti-war/anti-intervention agenda. There’s no need to view the effect on his policy cynically either: He may quite sincerely believe that doing everything in his power to prevent such an attack, and therefore to avoid any laxness in the Policy Formerly Known as the War on Terror, is part of the job he swore an oath to do. Of course, to the extent one accepts that rationale, it becomes more difficult to condemn his predecessor’s policies as one-sidedly as his supporters might wish to, and as he himself has done.

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      The role of the Brown election is this sphere was what stood out as new to me too, but it wasn’t obvious at all to me. I wasn’t aware it was such a significant part of the impetus behind his election.Report

      • Not sure if we’re reading each other right. It may be that I worded my comment ambiguously (have tried now to fix it): What I meant was that the dynamic that a study of Brown voters seems to have confirmed was, I believe, the theory obviously underlying Obama’s approach before the Brown election – and not just regarding the former WOT. As for Brown specifically, I had the idea at the time that his candidacy was not treated by the voters as primarily a referendum on Obamacare (which would have been unusually selfless of Massachusetts voters!), but that political punditry treated it as one in effect.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I’ve always wondered to what extent “evolving thinking” is also representative of “getting access to all of the info you didn’t (or couldn’t) have access to when you were a mere candidate.”

    Candidate: “If elected, I will end this petty War On Terror Crap! We will have a return to normalcy!”

    (wins election)

    Guy in suit: “Hello Mr. President, here is your briefing of what is really going on.”

    New President: “Holy crap. We need to start bombing.”Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

      With the federal reserve, I’d believe it… with the presidency? Particularly with congressmen running?
      I mean, sure, if Trump decides to aboutface on twenty things when he gets to be president, no one ought to be surprised.

      But if Hillary Clinton does that, we have a genuine “wtf”… because she ought to be able to get enough information from her allies on the Hill to not be completely out of line on policy.Report

  3. Avatar notme says:

    So Obama realized he was naïve in his underestimating the threat? Not surprising.Report

    • Avatar Damon in reply to notme says:

      Then he should have had a public address and said “I was wrong in the campaign and here’s why and now I know better.”

      Of course, he gave those individuals and the administration that backed them up, a pass on legit torture and civil rights violations.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I still need to RTFA, but Candidate Obama was never the anti-war civil libertarian that many (too many) made him out to be. His own words were “I’m not against war, I’m against stupid wars”. A main thrust of his campaign was that he was going to focus on Afghanistan and fight the larger so-called War on Terror more intelligently, with a whole of government approach. He campaigned to close down gitmo, sure, but he was never against the System, as such.

    [dg]He was who we thought he was, and we let him off the hook[/dg]

    (though a significant break from his campaign rhetoric and promises was Odyssey Dawn, but nobody has ever given him any grief for that, aside from a (very funny) segment or two on the Daily Show)Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

      Skimming the book over the last couple of post-leaf-blowing evenings, I find that Savage goes to considerable lengths to make this point quite explicit. Neither in the the campaign, nor in the presidency, nor, there is some suggestion, long before that time, as a conlaw lecturer & legislator.

      Savage expresses some frustration (felt contemporaneously in 2007) that Obama’s campaigning, while taken literally not committing him to civil libertarian positions that would be difficult to deliver on, was nevertheless “framed” (I would suggest “pitched” as the better charge here) in such a way as to give the impression that Obama was and, if elected, intended to be as president a committed civil libertarian. From my perspective that kind of just seems like good campaigning. But Savage, like the legal expert he is, draws out the many ways in which Obama’s commitments have been to the formal legality of government security actions, rather than to substantively protecting citizens from them. I sort of expected Savage as a lawyer (or law school grad) to appreciate that, but he doesn’t seem to.

      As an incidental update to the post, I’m actually not finding the Savage book to be quite as enjoyable as I thought I might. It’s a very thorough and lawyerly examination of the Obama administration’s approach to (and struggles to approach) the legal challenges of the post-9/11 U.S. national security environment. But man is it dry. It’s also not especially illuminating in the parts I’ve seen. There is a lot of recounting of deliberations and arguments that anyone following these questions moderately closely in the press or on blogs will be pretty familiar with.

      If you’re going to spend money and time on a book covering these questions, especially if you don’t have need for a comprehensive review of national security legal politics in the Obama era, I might recommend you check out Scott Shane’s Objective Troy instead. It looks into a good number of the same legal questions, focusing on the targeted killing area, but couples that with a close look at the life and significance of Anwar Al-Awlaki. And in both areas – detailing the administration’s wrestling with these problems, and telling the story of Awlaki’s journey, Shane offers a much more textured, concrete account of the events, people, and forces involved. It’s governmental and political history that reads like thrilling, suspenseful governmental and political history to Savage’s legal text with a dash of personal portrait here (usually of government lawyers, who seem to be the bulk of the sources) and political analysis there.

      The Savage will probably end up being the more essential text for an overall appraisal of the legal ramifications of Obama’s presidency in this area, though.Report