Eli Lake has an excellent feature at Reason today on the war powers that President Obama is operating with. The editors at Reason relish puncturing the hypocrisy and hyperbole of partisans, so naturally the piece leads with the point that, despite the free pass Obama gets from the left and the criticism he gets from the right, he is in many important ways not that different from Bush on these issues. (This is an updated version of an argument Eli laid out for The New Republic last year, where it was framed as pushback against Dick Cheney -- which is the sort of thing TNR's editors relish.)
To me, though, the more interesting and important point comes deeper in the piece, which cuts through a maddening dynamic in civil liberties debates: the tendency of one side to pretend that the threat of terrorism doesn't exist while the other side pretends that there's nothing at all troubling about the powers necessary to combat the threat. These dueling fictions make the answers to the questions raised by the war on terror seem much easier than they are. The case of Anwar al-Awlaki neatly illustrates the dilemma. The American-born Awlaki is a real threat -- he is actively recruiting terrorists to attack the US, and was linked to both the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted Christmas Day bombing. It's hard to imagine fighting the war on terror effectively without giving the military the power to hunt down and kill a guy like Awlaki. And yet can it really be okay for the President to order the assassination of an American citizen anywhere in the world at any time for the duration of a war that has no defined endpoint?
The sensible approach to thorny questions like this is effective oversight and sunset clauses to ensure that extraordinary powers are reassessed periodically (Britain conducted its fight against the IRA using powers that were sunseted in that fashion). Read Eli's piece for the details.
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