The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way:
"The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.
Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."
This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine. Here is the relevant section from Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy (itself quoting from the earlier and controversial articulation in the 2002 National Security Strategy):
If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions.
Of course, the Bush Administration was excoriated for framing the issue that way, and there arose a lively cottage industry devoted to attacking this aspect of the Bush doctrine. While Obama has tended to get away with things his predecessors could not, I suspect that even he will face some tough questioning now that the overlap with the controversial Bush doctrine is so unmistakable.
The issue is a difficult one, for the applicability of the self-defense principle depends crucially on context. Everyone agrees that if someone is attacking you with a knife, you do not have to wait for the blade to puncture your skin before you can strike at the assailant. And everyone agrees that it is not self-defense to attack someone just because you think there is a dim and distant possibility that one day that person might decide that he wants to attack you even though there is no evidence of such intent today. In the real world of national security policymaking, however, there are abundant hard cases in between those easy calls and those hard cases are what policymakers -- as distinct from pundits -- can't avoid.
The memo reveals the Obama Administration wrestling with these problems and coming to conclusions strikingly similar to those of the Bush Administration. I wonder if Team Obama will be more successful than the Bush Administration was in arguing the merits and logic of the preemption doctrine.
I have a few additional thoughts beyond the ones I posted earlier on the implications of the historic drone strike that killed al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen who had linked up with Al Qaeda:
* Shadow Government's house historian, Will Inboden, has chastised me for making this point before, but I am slow to learn from history (and historians) so I will make it again anyway: I think Obama's embrace of drone strikes and most of the rest of the Bush Administration Global War on Terror institutional edifice further solidifies the Bush-Obama/Truman-Eisenhower parallel. (The observant reader will note that I made this point exactly one year ago and am now making it again. Coincidence? Or is it because this is the week that my American Grand Strategy seminar studies the Truman-Eisenhower transition?) Obama, like Ike, campaigned on the premise that his predecessor had thoroughly botched the most important grand strategy challenges of the day and that he (Obama/Ike) would dramatically alter course if elected. However sincere that campaign critique may have been, once elected the new Administration ended up embracing most of the very same controversial elements -- in this case, Obama's embrace of secret legal memos to authorize unilateral uses of force outside of a formal UN process. Of course, containment policy remained a subject of bitter partisan debate after the Eisenhower Administration, but the parameters of that debate were narrowed considerably by the simple fact that Eisenhower embraced more than he replaced of the strategy he inherited from his predecessor. Obama has done the same and I expect a similar effect on the parameters of future debates over the war on terror.
* While the continuity is mostly to be praised, not all of it is beyond critique. My former colleague John Bellinger has argued that Obama may be following Bush too closely in one respect: relying on secret legal reasoning rather than going to Congress and the international community to shore up the political foundations undergirding the most controversial legal aspects of the war. Circumstances eventually forced Bush to secure more explicit Congressional authorization for controversial features of his detainee policy, but Bellinger argues it would have been preferable to lock in Congressional and international buy-in earlier. The Obama Administration is following the Bush precedent and, ultimately, may be forced to deal with Congress and the international community as Bush was. Bellinger argues that Obama would be better served by initiating the legal conversation now, rather than delaying the inevitable. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman proposes an intriguing first step: declassify the legal memo that authorized the strike that killed al-Awlaki. My guess is that this would trigger more debate than consensus, for, as another former Bush official, Jack Goldsmith, has argued, many of the opponents of drone strikes have no interest in establishing a legal framework that would permit the strikes. The opponents want to stop the strikes, period. But Goldsmith also rightly points out that that debate is inevitable so perhaps Bellinger and Harmon are on to something.
* Speaking of legal memos, I think this strike may have killed the movement to prosecute Bush-era officials involved in detainee policy. An important part of Obama's political base has never been satisfied with the previous investigations that exonerated Bush officials, and has long called for prosecuting those who acted under the legal protection of official Justice Department memos and, indeed, has called for going after the lawyers who wrote those very memos. The Obama Administration has stopped short of launching the full witch-hunt the left is demanding, and it is hard to see how they could initiate it now. Any action against Bush officials who wrote the legal memos or who acted consistent with those memos would seem to open up a precedent that exposed all of the Obama team to the same risk once Obama's successor is in office. Perhaps there is a crafty legal strategy that would snare all Bush "witches" whilst allowing all the Obama ones to evade the net. But my guess is that the Obama team will not want to put that risky strategy to the test.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.