Should Elections Shape National Security Policy?

Obama campaigned against the Bush approach to fighting terrorism. We elected him. Does he owe us follow through?

In the clip above, neoconservative David Frum and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald conduct a riveting argument about the War on Terrorism. They share these beliefs: 1) the September 11 attacks caused Republicans and Democrats alike to conceive of anti-terrorism as war rather than a matter of criminal justice; 2) Election 2004 marked the arrival of the Democratic Party's dissent from that paradigm -- a core John Kerry assertion was that terrorists should be treated like criminals; 3) In 2008, the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, Barack Obama, denounced various Bush Administration anti-terrorism policies in the strongest language imaginable; 4) Since taking office, President Obama has embraced many of the very policies he once denounced, and most Democrats haven't objected anywhere near as forcefully as they once did.

What these men disagree about is whether this "bipartisan national security state" is a good thing. Greenwald insists that Obama's campaign rhetoric and subsequent victory obligates him to follow through. "When a presidential candidate stands up and repeatedly says that our counter-terrorism policy is a fundamental betrayal of our values," he argued, "that it requires fundamental change; that I intend to reverse it all and restore who America is, what our values are, and the rule of law; and to eliminate these policies, and close Guantanamo, and no longer hold people without due process, and no longer treat this as some kind of global battlefield, but instead to do it in comportment with our values and our legal principles -- that becomes a covenant between him and the American people, and when he violates it that's a bad thing."

Frum disagrees. Obama and his supporters issued their blistering critique, he says. "And then they won, and decided that the people who they used to think were sullying the fine name of the United States may have had a point after all. What you see as a tragedy -- the Democrats falling away from their positions of 2004 -- may be maturation. Maybe the things John Kerry was saying in 2004 were irresponsible, unconsidered, and driven by the needs of his anguished base. Now the Democrats have elected a president. They've elected a Congress. They've looked at the situation. They had to make the decisions. There were some things about the Bush-Cheney policy they didn't like as it existed in 2002 or 2003... and looking at the Bush-Cheney policy from 2007 or 2008, they think it basically laid down some positive tracks. I tend to think of this as American government working. This is the feature, not the bug."

In this telling, the Bush Administration panicked a bit in 2002 and 2003, then course corrected -- and candidate Obama overshot in his rhetoric, then course corrected himself upon entering the White House. And what if candidate Obama was in fact right, Greenwald retorts, but was just too inept, cowardly, or unprincipled to follow through on the campaign promises that he made?

If Obama is scared of following through on his pledges, Frum replies, it's because he knows that by doing so, he'd put himself on the wrong side of the American people. Thus it makes no sense to say that he has broken a covenant with the electorate by breaking campaign promises. "Give him credit for knowing his business," Frum says. "Maybe he is someone who got elected and said, 'That due process for terrorists stuff was fine in the primary, but it hurt me in the general. I was elected because the economy was terrible... and people wanted health care.'"

Kudos to both men for stating their positions so forcefully.

As much as I incline toward Greenwald on these questions, I can see where Frum is coming from: it is true that politicians sometimes enter office and pursue policies different from what they campaigned on due to an informed calculation that a plank of their platform would be disadvantageous if implemented. That explanation might even make sense if President Obama's "course corrections" were limited to issues like closing the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay. That new policy required an unanticipated fight over housing terrorist suspects in maximum security prisons.

As it turns out, however, President Obama has governed contrary to the spirit of his campaign on many other matters. It is hardly plausible, for example, to insist that he would put himself on the wrong side of the American people had he failed to assert an ability to assassinate citizens of this country without due process. Equally hard to believe is that he would have offended the sensibility of his fellow Americans by going to Congress before committing America to a war in Libya. Yet Obama has done these things, despite being critical of the executive power claims made by the Bush Administration, and specifically asserting as a United States Senator that "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Obama is reversing himself on executive power not because he is a bad person, but because everyone vested with the powers and responsibilities of the presidency is tempted to overstep his authority. That was certainly the view taken by the Founders. In their estimation, the head of state posed so great a threat to limited government and liberty that coequal branches were created to check and balance him. One reason that Greenwald, the ACLU and I found the Bush Administration so alarming -- particularly the Dick Cheney, Jay Bybee and John Yoo faction -- is that it asserted executive powers so sweeping, in a war without apparent geographic or temporal limits, that if we took them seriously we'd be abandoning the very logic of the Constitutional framework.

For people like us, it was vital for a presidential candidate to push back against this theory of government. Arguing that Obama has no subsequent obligation to pursue the course that he laid out makes a mockery of elections -- Even John Yoo and Andy McCarthy regard them to be an opportunity to check the executive branch by throwing the folks who hold the office out of power. There is also some tipping point where broken campaign promises cause people to abandon politics out of cynicism, or even radicalize folks who lose investment in the political process.

In closing, I'd pose this question to Frum: You don't think Bush/Obama assertions of executive power are as problematic as I do. But surely you can conceive of a president behaving in a way that you do find problematic, generating massive controversy, and facing re-election against someone who promises to reverse his excesses. If during that campaign, the challenger has no obligation to follow through on the primary elements of his platform, then how do the people go about rescuing the country? And why should they buy into the legitimacy of elections?