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Unchecked Power

April 8, 2010

There’s no moral difference between the assassination of a U.S. citizen and the assassination of someone who is not a U.S. citizen – both are equally evil – yet news that President Obama has claimed the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens remains remarkable because it is an instance of the President of the United States claiming unchecked and unlimited power. Citizenship functions, or is supposed to function, as a check on the power of the State, but here we have current president swiping the check of citizenship aside so that he can go for the killing strike unhindered. Even President Bush didn’t claim such frightful power. Obama’s move takes us closer neither to peace nor to safety.

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  1. April 8, 2010 6:37 pm


  2. April 8, 2010 6:50 pm

    Exactly, this is bad news — no matter how one might want to read this (either he is making pre-existing policies public and thinks it can not be accepted out in the open, or it is the creation of a new policy entirely — both cases would bring in their own concerns).

  3. April 8, 2010 6:55 pm

    One wonders whether this will be covered as much as Bush’s failures and whether or not those Catholics praising Obama as the better vote primarily b/c of his virtue in foreign policy will regret their decision.

    On second thought, one doesn’t have to wonder. Obama will be protected by the press and Catholics will continue to delude themselves about just how evil Obama’s foreign policy really is.

    • April 8, 2010 7:02 pm

      Michael Denton – Catholics who were paying attention did not “praise” Obama nor did we express particular enthusiasm for his foreign policy. We certainly did not claim that his foreign policy would be “virtuous.” It has proven, predictably, to be much like Bush’s. Nevertheless, to answer your question, I do not regret my vote in the least. We could have expected the same, or indeed worse, from a John “Project for a New American Century” McCain administration. When it comes to foreign policy, it is your boy Reagan who set this country on a particularly nasty path that has only worsened over time.

  4. David Wheeler-Reed permalink
    April 8, 2010 7:39 pm

    The New Yorker and Der Spiegel both have excellent articles on Obama’s drone war campaign. According to both sources Obama has used more drones in his first year in office than Bush did in his last four years.

    I will never understand why those who protested Obama’s honorary doctorate at Notre Dame failed to mention the fact that Obama is just as “pro-war” as Bush…


  5. drdwheelerreed permalink
    April 8, 2010 7:44 pm

    @ Michael Denton…

    Yes, you are right that some “liberal” and “social justice” oriented Catholics have given Obama a pass from time to time… but don’t think that we holistic Catholics here at VN have given him a pass…

    For me… when it came to voting… he was the lesser of two evils… which is how the last 3 or 4 elections have been for me…


  6. April 8, 2010 7:56 pm

    Catholics who were paying attention did not “praise” Obama nor did we express particular enthusiasm for his foreign policy.

    Do you read this blog?

    We certainly did not claim that his foreign policy would be “virtuous.” It has proven, predictably, to be much like Bush’s. Nevertheless, to answer your question, I do not regret my vote in the least. We could have expected the same, or indeed worse, from a John “Project for a New American Century” McCain administration.

    But that’s not the argument you made at the time. At the time, it was that Obama’s foreign is clearly and significantly better than McCain & Bush’s and therefore is so substantial to outweigh the damage Obama will do by encouraging abortion. If Obama & McCain were the same or if McCain was only slightly worse, that changes the entire justification for voting for Obama. The case, while not destroyed, is in a much weaker state (and it was never particularly strong to begin with). When it comes to foreign policy, it is your boy Reagan who set this country on a particularly nasty path that has only worsened over time.My boy? When did he become my boy? Considering 3/4ths of his presidency was before I was born, I hardly think I can consider him my “boy.” Furthermore, I’m not a big Reagan fan.

    And if we have to lay the blame on somebody, I think I would start w/ FDR and Truman’s actions in WWII, particularly the bombings in Dresden & the atomic bombings (or perhaps even further to Grant & Sherman in the Civil War). Sadly, Reagan did not invent American injustice in dealing with the enemy.

    • April 8, 2010 8:17 pm

      The argument that I made at the time was that Obama’s policies overall would be better than McCain’s. In terms of foreign policy, I always said that Obama’s policies would be better in some ways and about the same in other ways. I said that the small differences that exist made Obama a better choice. I still think that. “Foreign policy” is of course a catch all term for a lot of different policies. On some of those policies, Obama has been better than Bush, and on others he has been the same or worse than Bush.

      Obama has done nothing to “encourage” abortion.

      Finally, you better not let your new co-bloggers hear that you’re not a Reagan fan!

  7. Cindy permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:14 pm

    I don’t think anyone should sit back and take it lightly when any President has this much power. We can’t sit back and give up our rights, because of terrorism. The flaw in the fight on terror from the get go. I guess I really don’t need to get started on all of this.

  8. M.Z. permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:36 pm

    While some necessary distinctions are likely being elided by the Obama administration, we should also not elide legitimate distinctions. The person the Obama administration is targeting is an open belligerent with a group that has committed and is committed to doing acts of war on US soil and against US interests abroad. There are no due process protections when an actor is actively engaged in crime, in this case sedition, make that treason.

  9. drdwheelerreed permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:37 pm

    @ Michael Denton… just a suggestion… it’s not a good idea to lump everyone at VN into one amorphous entity. We don’t all think the same thing… we aren’t into Group-Think if you know what I mean… (please note, I’m not trying to sound harsh here…)

    But I do agree with you… we do need to go back to Dresden, etc. to understand the roots of the imperial presidency… in fact… we need to go back a bit before that…


  10. April 8, 2010 9:02 pm


    I don’t think everyone at VN made the same argument, though it was a common thread throughout the arguments many here were advancing, as well other Catholics such as Kmiec.

    And you didn’t sound harsh at all.

    As for the roots of the imperial presidency, I think I would really mark the atom bomb. While presidents before allowed atrocities against civilians, I don’t think they did it with the same kind of public acceptance & justification as truman did w/ the atom bomb. A historian might prove me wrong there, but I think that’s probably the case.


    Please don’t tell them I don’t like Reagan. I’ll lose my salary ;)

    I’ll pass on the comment about abortion to make this point that I think we can agree on: knowing what we know today, I think the argument you made about Obama being better on foreign policy would be a harder one to make today and makes it more difficult to justify voting for Obama under the test Ratzinger outlined. Maybe it changes the vote, maybe it doesn’t but it certainly makes the case weaker and the decision closer.

  11. Cindy permalink
    April 8, 2010 9:06 pm

    After the Al Qaeda attacks of Sept 11th, President Bush proclaimed, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil”.
    So here we have a history god of the state, that replaces the God of many of those running United States: Jesus Christ. The government is teaming with self proclaimed Christians whose goal is to rid the world of evil. But they cannot obey Jesus and satisfy the state. Jesus teachings are impossible for the state ever to follow. The problem with the history-god is that it has no described nature or character. History has recently called the US to execute disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The goal of ridding the world of evil is not new. The good intentions to rid the world of evil, ironically, are associated with some of the most evil and tragic events in history. Even Osama bin Laden’s stated goal, more or less, is to rid the world of evil. Once again violent attempts to rid the world of evil will never achieve anything remotely close to that goal.

  12. April 8, 2010 9:19 pm

    Michael – Yes, I would agree with that.

  13. April 8, 2010 9:26 pm

    Wow, we just agreed.

    Hmm…Mi agreed with me and the Saints won the Superbowl in the same year…world’s probably coming to an end pretty soon.

  14. April 8, 2010 9:26 pm

    M.Z. – Are you defending Obama’s claim of the right to assassinate?

    I might point out that u.s. presidents have always felt that they “reserve the right” to murder anyone they feel like, including u.s. citizens.

    You all have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., right?

  15. M.Z. permalink
    April 8, 2010 9:33 pm

    My strongest claim is that a belligerent on a battlefield does not enjoy due process rights, regardless of his nationality.

    My weakest claim is that it is not altogether clear to me that having declared his belligerency openly and publicly and having engaged in hostilities that we are proscribed from harming him, evenly lethally, in a foreign territory.

  16. David Nickol permalink
    April 8, 2010 9:59 pm

    . . . . news that President Obama has claimed the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens remains remarkable because it is an instance of the President of the United States claiming unchecked and unlimited power.

    I think the way this issue is framed here is not quite accurate. It is not that Obama claims this power. He has the power. I don’t have time to make an organized case right now, so I am just throwing out pieces of information.

    From the New York Times

    As a general principle, international law permits the use of lethal force against individuals and groups that pose an imminent threat to a country, and officials said that was the standard used in adding names to the list of targets. In addition, Congress approved the use of military force against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. People on the target list are considered to be military enemies of the United States and therefore not subject to the ban on political assassination first approved by President Gerald R. Ford.

    Both the C.I.A. and the military maintain lists of terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliates who are approved for capture or killing, former officials said. But because Mr. Awlaki is an American, his inclusion on those lists had to be approved by the National Security Council, the officials said.

    Public Law 107-40 says

    That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. [Emphasis added]

    The clear implication of the various accounts I have read is that the CIA and the military have the authority to draw up “hit lists” of their own and act on them. We now know that in order for an American citizen to be put on a “hit list,” it must be approved by the National Security Council. I have not read anywhere that the president on his own has the power to put an American citizen on a “hit list.” He is the head of the National Security Council, but that does not mean that he alone can act with the authority of the National Security Council.

    I think all of this is very disturbing, but on the other hand, the CIA has been assassinating people or helping others to do so going back at least as far as the administration of JFK.

  17. David Nickol permalink
    April 8, 2010 10:08 pm

    My strongest claim is that a belligerent on a battlefield does not enjoy due process rights, regardless of his nationality.

    I think M.Z. has it exactly right here. The president has the authority to use force against military targets, and Anwar al-Awlaki is a military target. The way some people are describing this situation, they make it sound like Obama has claimed the right to target anyone he might decide — on a mere whim — should be assassinated. That doesn’t come anywhere near what happened here.

    • April 9, 2010 7:03 am

      The rules of combat also describe military targets, and they are not “free to be assassinated” once they are “in a fight against us.” There are more rules to targeting than “they are against us.” When not on the battlefield, capture –sure; but, of course, that would mean a trial. It’s just easier to say “he’s guilty, kill him” then it is to say “he’s guilty, let’s prove it.” Sorry, the rules of combat do not allow for assassinations like this.

  18. David Nickol permalink
    April 8, 2010 10:13 pm

    You all have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., right?

    Is this a claim that Lyndon Johnson ordered the assassination of MLK?

  19. April 8, 2010 11:24 pm

    David, no. But: [link]

  20. April 9, 2010 1:32 am

    Wow! In an age of unparalleled expansion of the central government’s power, an ardent statist like Barack Obama arrogates further power to himself!

    Who could have imagined such a thing would happen?

    I sympathize with the shock and outrage you all must feel: After you helped to put Mr. Obama in power, he goes and does something so utterly unforeseeable. Why, it’s not like there was any clue that Mr. Obama believes in expanding the power of the State.

  21. Ronald King permalink
    April 9, 2010 5:47 am

    This is just another symptom of power as a problem-solving strategy. I voted for Obama as a symbol of hope for those who are oppressed. I pray for wisdom to be his gift that will free him from the historical violence that gives human beings the illusion that those with the biggest guns will have the most influence to protect and project safety and the moral highground.
    There is no change in the external world without a change of heart internally. With anyone who gains political power, either within the context of the secular or of the religious, we see the extent to which one has grown into the Light of God’s Love.
    Violence has many different expressions and this recent example is just another symptom of violence being used to solve a human relationship of fear. This violent reaction to threat is what unites Church and State and creates the culture of death that the Church so loudly denounces.
    This is a symptom of the fear that is the foundation of human relationships and the reaction to that fear is aggressive defensiveness which identifies the threat that must be eradicated.
    Words and guns kill in different ways, but, they kill just the same.

  22. M.Z. permalink
    April 9, 2010 7:41 am

    I don’t think it is at all clear that Obama is supporting assassination in place of a reasonable prospect of capture. I think it is downright silly to dispute the target’s complicity with Al Qaeda. It degrades the argument to pretend it is an object of dispute or something that needs to be established.

    That said, I do think people are on shaky ground endorsing assassination. When Israel has bombed the homes of Hamas leaders, killing their wives and children, I have condemned it. While I find our similar program in Afghanistan and Pakistan of using drone aircraft to bomb targets with people of interest highly imprudent, I also lean toward believing it to be outright immoral. However, ethical arguments alleging the immorality of targeting leaders of foreign enemies for death haven’t been seriously defended internationally since about the Middle Ages. Yes, you can find examples from as recently as the American Revolution alleging the United States was a barbarous people for targeting British officers. My understanding of international law, which is worth what you are paying for it, is that leaders (or officers) in opposing sides in a conflict are not afforded significant protections. I confess to not seeing the great distinction others are seeing.

  23. Brian permalink
    April 9, 2010 9:16 am

    In my limited understanding, expansion of Executive branch power, complexity, and opacity is apparent in the late 19th century, but ascends rapidly with and after FDR, initially because of the scope of New Deal programs and then with the run-up to WWII.

    War is the most cogent argument for strong unitary executive power under the US Constitution, and Truman’s National Security Act of 1947 codifies what WWII and the early Cold War wrought. Congressional war powers under Article I were meant to be balky and slow when war involved massing huge armies and ferrying them across oceans. With nuclear weapons, long range bombers, and ICBMs, war — or at least something like emergency conditions — become a permanent state. Much follows: Mossadegh and Arbenz, the Bay of Pigs and Gulf of Tonkin, Cambodia and Iran-Contra, cruise missile retaliations and preemptive war. That Mr. Obama, a pragmatic Niebuhrian, would target citizens for assassination is not surprising.

    It’s not just in Early Modernity that the maxim applies: “War made the State and the State made war.” Charles Tilly’s account of the rise of European Nation States makes this clear. So does Marvin and Ingle’s Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, as well as Bill Cavanaugh’s work on the State’s invention of “religion” as a separate category (and later scapegoating of religion as uniquely violent). For this and a host of other reasons, then, Christians should be particularly wary — or at least highly selective — when including themselves in the collective “we” of this or any Nation State.

  24. April 9, 2010 9:52 am


    Amen brother. War is the health of the State, etc.

  25. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 10:11 am

    That Mr. Obama, a pragmatic Niebuhrian, would target citizens for assassination is not surprising.


    A very interesting message, but I want to say again that I think framing the issue in terms of Obama targeting citizens for assassination or claiming the right to assassinate citizens is vastly oversimplifying what actually is the case. I am sure my understanding of all of this is much more limited than yours, but it seems to me that what we are talking about is a collective decision on the part of CIA and/or military leaders to designate individuals as military targets, with participation by a higher authority (the National Security Council) to include a citizen on the list.

    We are not talking about President Obama giving orders to assassinate Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.

    Any American president has the ultimate authority to launch a nuclear war and kill millions of people.

    It may be deplorable, but it does not seem to be a violation of either American or international law. Nor does it seem to be an unprecedented grab for power by Obama. Note the story titledBush Has Widened Authority of C.I.A. to Kill Terroristsfrom the New York Times from way back in December 2002. An excerpt:

    The Bush administration has prepared a list of terrorist leaders the Central Intelligence Agency is authorized to kill, if capture is impractical and civilian casualties can be minimized, senior military and intelligence officials said. . . . .

    President Bush has provided written legal authority to the C.I.A. to hunt down and kill the terrorists without seeking further approval each time the agency is about to stage an operation. . . .

    The president is not legally required to approve each name added to the list, nor is the C.I.A. required to obtain presidential approval for specific attacks, although officials said Mr. Bush had been kept well informed about the agency’s operations. . . .

    Under current intelligence law, the president must sign a finding to provide the legal basis for covert actions to be carried out by the C.I.A. In response to past abuses, the decision-making process has grown into a highly formalized review in which the White House, Justice Department, State Department, Pentagon and C.I.A. take part.

    The administration must notify Congressional leaders of any covert action finding signed by the president. In the case of the presidential finding authorizing the use of lethal force against members of Al Qaeda, Congressional leaders have been notified as required, the officials said. . . .

    We may be talking about someone having too much power here, but it definitely is not unchecked power. When the congress and the National Security Agency are in on something, it is not merely a matter of presidential power.

  26. Brian permalink
    April 9, 2010 11:38 am


    I appreciate your comment; please let me clarify. I find Mr. Obama’s action in this case to be, at most, a small extension of executive power, following the momentum visible in the history I briefly recount above. The justification for such decisions has been national security in the face of war or threatened war. Checks to presidential power do, indeed, exist, but have grown increasingly attenuated in the past half century. I don’t recall a President of either party who explicitly accepted the 1973 War Powers Resolution as constitutional.

    There’s an argument to be made that Obama, as a Niebuhrian, is less problematic than his predecessor, who expressed such goals as ridding the world of evil. (See Cindy’s excellent comment above). Nonetheless, I see the current administration as continuation rather than exception or change of course. Christians, given our (here I use the plural pronoun confidently) poor record on such matters, do well to question the Nation State’s claims about protective violence.

  27. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 12:56 pm


    Everything you say makes very good sense to me. One of the reasons I spoke out at length is that it has bothered me to see Obama spoken of in such extreme terms. To his enemies, he is not merely pro-abortion. He is pro-infanticide (and probably wants to kill off the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, too). Now we have what does not seem to be particularly alarming to me (given everything that has gone before) described as “an instance of the President of the United States claiming unchecked and unlimited power.” One may be appalled and still realize that his power is far from unchecked and unlimited, even in this particular instance.

    As for Cindy’s statement that “Jesus teachings are impossible for the state ever to follow,” I would say that Jesus taught nothing about how states should act. States are not individuals, and they simply cannot act like individuals if they want to continue to exist.

  28. April 10, 2010 7:43 am

    Is this surprising to anyone?


  1. Obama Approves Assassination of Citizen « The American Catholic

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