I have devoted enough keystrokes over the past two weeks to Trump and no doubt many more will take place in the coming weeks. For now though, what to make of Obama’s legacy, specifically, his security legacy?
The President has left his mark on the nation, not only for his medicare reforms, climate change policies, but also because he presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression and helped bring the country to a level of stability, even if it’s a shaky stability. The fact remains there are plenty of changes he made to the benefit of many Americans, and the world. They are changes that Trump will have a very difficult time undoing, and despite his rhetoric, he probably won’t because he just can’t. In this regard Trump enters the White House in much the same way Obama did.
When the stars align (agreement in the House, with world leaders etc.) there are some changes the President can make that have lasting impact as some of the above examples illustrate. But on other files, those big changes came many years earlier and it is much more difficult to change them. Take the the terrorism and security file. Closing Guantanamo Bay was one of the changes Obama wanted to make and it didn’t happen though it is near death having so few inmates. It’s likely no longer worth the financial expense of keeping it open. But it dates back decades and closing it was going to be difficult. He signed the nuclear deal with Iran, and this is one of those changes Trump will find it hard to undo. He presided over the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq though it could be said that withdraw was inevitable given there wasn’t much more U.S. troops could do. Trump blames Obama for ISIS which is of course not his fault. Blame for ISIS could begin with the Brits for creating Iraq, a state designed by the west, and one that ignored the complexities of the region. Obama did preside over an expanded drone assassination program, but one that was created by his predecessor, had Bin Laden killed, and in the realm of surveillance, oversaw the fallout of the exposing of NSA mass surveillance and pursued whistle-blowers like Snowden, and Manning. There are many that would say that on these files Obama didn’t accomplish much and was much like his predecessor George W. Bush maybe even worse.
But some perspective is needed here. It is relatively easy for many of us to say Obama should have dismantled NSA surveillance, pardoned Snowden, stopped all this madness. But have any of us had to step into the seat of power such as being an American president? Everyone has grand dreams of change, grand dreams of what they would do if they were in power, how they’d do things differently, as if it were always that easy. The reality of course is that the White House, as office, predated Obama and it will outlive him. As it affects the security file, he could not control world events, no more than he could change the fact his political opponents controlled both Houses of government. On the issue of Snowden, one has to ask how could a President pardon Snowden? Realistically you would be asking the President to ignore the biggest public intelligence leak in a generation. If he dismissed that with a pardon, he would have diminished what his office was, and while I think what Snowden did was important, a pardon I don’t think was something Obama had the power to do, not because he didn’t literally have that power, but because the office he was beholden to prevented him from using it. We might like to think as people we can transcend these things, yes we can if you will, but the reality is far different. Change is often unbearably slow unless its revolutionary and then its unpredictable.What the Snowden pardon issue should drive home, is the completely inadequate mechanisms the West has in order to deal with whistle blowing in intelligence because for the law, it’s a crime, either you leaked information illegally or didn’t. The problem is this ignores the complexities of the issue. Sometimes the presidency reminds me of a monarchy (maybe because I just watched the Crown – not sure).
Similar to the pardon issue, what of Obama and NSA surveillance? As someone who is an firm supporter of privacy, NSA mass surveillance is something that all of us outside of office can rightly condemn and demand things change, but I wouldn’t have expected any different of a response from Obama. He was privy to intelligence most of us will never see in our lifetime. What did he see or know? But besides that, what could he have done given the tremendous pressures not only within government but in the historical context of the world he inhabited? Consider that this surveillance regime was decades in the making. Again these are things that while we hope could change on a dime, it’s unfair to expect it from one man and in an instance. It’s not to say the President is completely at the mercy of events or pressures outside of one’s control, but sometimes that is indeed the case. The unfortunate reality that we deal with is that it is always much easier to add security powers and engage in conflicts than the reverse. Seldom has the President had the ability to cut back on military and intelligence spending and not faced intense push back to say nothing of repealing security or intelligence related laws. For instance, when might the Patriot Act be repealed?
Obama’s legacy on these issues is much the same as I expected it to be. I don’t see Trump’s ending much different except if he has utter disdain for the office and institutions he will preside over. If so, then things may be drastically different. One thing Trump could easily do is add to the military industrial complex and surveillance powers. Still it’s worth remembering that when we try and assess a President’s legacy, such as Obama’s, we remind ourselves that when he entered office, he was where history had put him. The same will hold true for Trump. History can sometimes be a tremendous buffer against change, for good or ill.