This week it's deja vu all over again, as that sage Yogi Berra once said. During the Bush administration it seemed like not a week went by without some hair-raising revelation about the laws defied and rules broken in The War on Terror. Back then, that war was much more in the public eye, with our cowboy-in-chief promising to "smoke 'em out of their caves" and to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." We heard about "extraordinary rendition," secret prisons, mysterious flights, and illegal wiretapping. The current president has taken a much less macho stance, and has avoided invading other countries, but it is becoming more and more clear that he too prefers to operate in a legal gray area.
Our nation has been sending drones around the world to commit targeted assassinations, including against American citizens. This week we are now learning of the Obama team's rather fuzzy definition of what an "imminent threat" means, and what justifies these deadly strikes to begin with.
This is not how it was supposed to happen. When campaigning for the presidency, Obama promised transparency, an end to Guantanamo, and for America to behave like a responsible world citizen. He does deserve credit for putting an end to the Bush torture policies, but by and large, he has continued to prosecute the War on Terror with methods reminiscent of the Bush years. Our government has been ruthlessly violent with members of terror groups, engaging in a direct strategy of killing off anyone who might potentially be a threat. This approach has the advantage of flying under the radar (unlike the invasion of Iraq), which means that most people in this country don't seem to know or care much about it. The hit on bin Laden, one of the few operations to get some attention, might be the most popular decision of Obama's presidency.
It should not surprise us that this former constitutional law professor who won a Nobel peace prize soon after being elected president would be using drones to rain death and destruction around the globe. There are forces in the world that control all of us, including the president. Even the most conscientious president must grapple with the unavoidable fact that America is an empire. Empires, by their nature, seek to maintain their power, influence and reach, and will do all kinds of nasty things to make sure that happens, often in secret. (This scene from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold pretty much sums up that hard reality.)
I do not think that even a president is able to change that basic fact of political life, and that shift would only occur if the public definitively decided that they were tired of the complications arising from America's imperial obligations. I don't see that happening. Like other former hegemons, America won't cease being an empire until after some kind of calamity forces the issue. As much as I hate the crimes that America's imperial status demands, I fear the cataclysm that would end that status even more. My only hope is that this nation can find some way to hang up its imperial crown in a new and more peaceful fashion, but I doubt that's possible.