George Graham

Obama Balks at the Use of Unchecked Power

For quite a while, I’ve wondered how a constitutional law professor could feel comfortable with the dangerous powers acquired by the presidency during the Bush regime. Yesterday, I found out he hasn’t been all that comfortable.

I’m talking about President Obama, of course.

In a historic speech to National Defense University students at Fort McNair in Washington DC, the president renounced his right to wage war anywhere in the world at any time without approval from any other branch of government. This dangerous power was ceded to the presidency after Nine Eleven by a panicked Congress, and has never been revoked. The result is that the president has the legal right to wage an endless war without the people’s permission.

President Obama obviously is uneasy with this kind of power, even when he is the one wielding it. While he justified the execution of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders by citing that power, he conceded that summary justice “cannot be the norm.” There are moral questions to be considered, he explained.

Here’s what he said:

Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

But he is obviously more than willing to share the authority to pursue that war. He said :

I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my Administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Let me repeat that – not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.

President Obama said he is eager to bring Congress into the picture before ordering any attack on the terrorists who threaten American lives and he outlined a series of checkpoints to limit the use of drone strikes on individuals. One of the key restrictions is that no attack – whether “with a drone or a shot gun” – must be directed against an American citizen on American soil.

He vowed his administration would not overstep its constitutional role in its zeal to protect the country from terrorists.

And he revealed he was already taking steps toward that end:

I have asked my Administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested – the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch – avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. Despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these – and other – options for increased oversight.

Also, under the new guidelines, the U.S. will not strike a suspect who can be captured, and attacks may only target an “imminent” threat.

It was a wide-ranging and thoughtful speech, and it revealed the troubling questions that must have been causing the president many sleepless nights. As he surveyed the pros and cons of policies designed to keep America safe while maintaining the principles that have made this country an example to the world, he acknowledged the folly and expense of war and the need for more humane solutions to the evils of terrorism.

In an observation that I especially welcomed, he declared:

I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and values demand that we make the effort.

Yes, Mr. President, it’s time – past time – to stop relying on bombs, bullets and boots on the ground as a solution to all of America’s foreign policy problems. And it’s reassuring to hear you address issues that have been troubling supporters like me.

Your speech offered a much-needed respite from the polemics pervading American politics.And it renewed my optimism for your legacy.

There are special interests – the military-industrial complex and its foot-soldiers in Congress, for example – who will oppose your common-sense solutions to the complex problems of a bitterly divided world. But as long as you hang on to the high moral ground, you will have the people’s support. And, in the end, that’s what really counts.

Click here for the speech.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for