President Obama said during his State of the Union address that he would focus on things he could do alone — without having to depend on a badly divided, partisan Congress. And the powerful imagery he summoned in support of voting rights — real, implementable voting rights, based on the example of a 102-year-old voting rights hero, could and should indeed be a critical focus of executive energy. His story of Desiline Victor waiting six hours to vote in North Miami even brought members of Congress — at least some of them — to their feet in a powerful ovation.
But Obama didn’t seem to include in the list of “things he could do alone” the solo, individual decisions that are fundamental to the role of commander in chief. And that role could include, without Congress having to have any role in it, bringing home all the troops from the failed war in Afghanistan. Ending it. Totally. Quickly.
Bringing home half the troops this year reflects the pressure of massive public opposition to the war — but it’s far from enough. All 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be pulled out by the middle of this year. And that role of the president, without Congress, could include announcing that the “winding down” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan won’t be transformed into an expanding drone war waged in shadows across the world.
When Obama claims that budget cuts “would jeopardize our military readiness,” he is signaling a rejection of what his own nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged is the need to cut the “bloated” military budget.
And crucially, when we look at areas in which the President can make executive decisions, independent of the whims of a paralyzed, partisan congress, is there any clearer example than the Obama administration’s strategy of targeting and killing “terror suspects,” along with unknown numbers of civilian “collateral damage” in Obama’s Global War on Terror 2.0?
We heard a claim about those drone assassinations during his address, that “we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.”
There’s no way that would fly, given recent revelations of the administration’s efforts to claim a legal right to murder anyone, U.S. citizen or not, who they “believe” may be guilty of something they identify as a terrorist attack. So Obama went on. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
What about the KILLING of the people he calls terrorists, beyond detention and prosecution? The reference to checks and balances referred back to the Justice Department’s claim that “due process” didn’t necessarily mean anything having to do with courts and judges, the claim that a decision by a “decision-maker” — not even necessarily the president — was enough to qualify as due process sufficient to take someone’s life, way beyond taking their liberty and their pursuit of happiness.
Focusing on the executive actions you can take without Congress is a great idea, Mr. President. But not unless that focus includes reversing the individually taken military actions that brought such disgrace on your administration’s first term.
Phyllis Bennis is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. www.ips-dc.org