The Buzz

Legacies of the Lethal Presidency

Tom Junod’s much-discussed Esquire story, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” is a must read. Framed as a long letter to President Obama, the piece examines the many challenges and contradictions involved in the “shadow wars” the Obama administration is conducting in Yemen and elsewhere. It focuses on the administration’s reliance on targeted killing via drone strikes and the centrality of these killings to its conduct of foreign policy.

Of particular concern for Junod is the process that the administration has put in place in order to determine who should be killed. He notes that officials have been careful to describe the process as cool, reflective and rational, emphasizing that everything is being done in accordance with the rule of law.

Indeed, Junod points out, it is largely because Obama has successfully portrayed himself as deeply concerned with the rule of law that he has been able to wage the drone war so aggressively and with so little opposition. As he writes, “You have been able to kill our enemies because you have forsworn waterboarding them.”

It is this power—the ability to order individuals to be killed without oversight—that Junod sees as central to Obama’s legacy. He admits this may not be a new power, but the scale of what is being done now is unprecedented. Moreover, by its nature, this power is inherently expansive. We may conceive of the targeted killings as a response to a specific contemporary threat from Al Qaeda and other groups. Yet this is a power that will now be formalized for all future presidents—as well as other world leaders whose exercise of it we might not be nearly as comfortable with.

This is not to say that there is an easy alternative to the drone war as Obama is waging it. Indeed, it’s easy to see its appeal, especially when compared to the Iraq and Afghan wars of the past decade. But at the very least, the drone program’s existence raises important political and moral issues. Junod’s thoughtful piece is a notable attempt to sort through them.