Obama’s foreign policy is just more evidence of an over-powerful executive

Remember the “kill list”? In 2012, the New York Times broke the shocking story that President Obama hand selects the targets for drone bombing campaigns in Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan and Yemen. The irony was sharp and the ethical concerns sharper:

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Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

Now, as air strikes begin in Syria in an attempt to stop the advance of ISIS, it seems Obama’s extremely hands-on war management style continues: The Wall Street Journal reports that “Obama plans to tightly control strikes in Syria.”

Just how tight will that control be? Well, I’ll give you a hint: It sounds a lot like the control he exercises over drone strikes:

The U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory, officials said. […] By demanding the Pentagon gets his signoff on any strikes in Syria, Mr. Obama can better ensure the operation remain focused on his main goal for that part of the campaign: weakening the militants’ hold on territory in neighboring Iraq.

Sounds familiar, right?

Obama has been accused of micromanaging in the past. Back in 2009 the charge came up regarding economic policy. In 2006 he reportedly said, “I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I’ll hire to do it. It’s hard to give up control when that’s all I’ve known.” In 2011, the First Lady emphasized how detail-focused her husband tends to be, saying he “reads every word, every memo, so he is better prepared than the people briefing him.”

There’s an extent to which that diligence is a good thing, and a welcome contrast to Obama’s more recent reputation for claiming ignorance of all kinds of important things. So I’m not interested in attempting some sort of pop psychology analysis of Obama’s plan to handpick the targets and people he bombs.

Maybe, as some have suggested, it’s a guilt thing. Or maybe, as others have posited, Obama is attempting to take the role of restrainer of the dogs of war. Or maybe, as the President himself supposedly said, he’s just “really good at killing people.”

I don’t know which, if any, of these, is the reason behind the President’s decision to micromanage these wars. Again, I’m not a psychologist.

No, what I see here is a much bigger problem—namely an out-of-control presidency which would have too much authority whether the President were Republican or Democrat, smart or dumb, a micromanager or an easygoing delegator.

When the kill list story emerged, one of the President’s national security advisors, Thomas E. Donilon, said Obama “is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go.”

Donilon added, “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world”—and there’s the issue encapsulated in a single sentence. No one person is supposed to be responsible for the position of the United States in the world. Not the President. Not anyone in Congress or on the Supreme Court. No one.

But there’s a real sense in which Obama’s fundamental misunderstanding of his role is, well, understandable, because that’s what we’ve allowed the presidency to become.

In treating the president like a celebrity, we’ve inflated the importance of what was supposed to be basically an administrative office, executing the directives of the people’s far more numerous and varied representatives in Congress.

In expecting the government to fix every conceivable problem, we’ve made it so much easier for the president to take it upon himself to do exactly that—with often disastrous results.

That’s why, as comedian and libertarian Penn Jillette put it during the 2012 election, even if we had “the best president possible, even if everything he did were perfect, you’re still going into this expansion of presidential power, which has gone on with Clinton, Bush, and Obama, are doing more and more to take care of us.” It’s not so much about the specific guy—though perhaps Obama is naturally more of a micromanager than some—as it is about the expectations for, and authority of, the office being totally and completely screwed up.

Jillette said, “The president should have so little power that it doesn’t matter who they are, instead of having so much power that it doesn’t matter who they are.”

If the already burning election fever for 2016 tells us anything, it’s that this is definitely not the case today.

What do you think?

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