On January 20, when Barack Obama congratulated Donald Trump at his successor’s inauguration, he was no doubt anxious about his legacy—and nowhere perhaps more so than in matters of national security. While Obama did draw down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and refused to commit ground forces in Syria, he left office with the world hovering on the brink of a precipice. Russia and the United States are engaged in the attacks and retaliations of cyber-warfare; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is poised to consolidate his power; and the fear of terrorism lurks ever-present in the minds of Americans and many Europeans. Meanwhile, many of the promises that Obama made at the outset of his presidency have gone unfulfilled. Prisoners at Guantánamo languish, with no closure of the camp in sight; the military commissions have yet to convict any of the 9/11 defendants; the specifics of the US drone campaign remain all too secret, and the campaign itself unregulated; and holding government officials accountable for the torture committed in the War on Terror has been successfully preempted as a possibility. Every bit as troubling, though, is how Obama ruled and the kind of authority he has now bequeathed to Trump. When it came to executive power, the Obama administration legalized or further bureaucratized several of George W. Bush’s key policies in the War on Terror, including indefinite detentions, military commissions, and drone killings—not to mention the flurry of executive orders that Obama issued in his final months, which helped to set a worrisome precedent for Trump.
As if to get ahead of the judgments of contemporary historians and pundits, Obama tried to put his own spin on his administration’s record on terrorism and national security. Addressing a largely military audience at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, last December, he laid out his view of the complex challenges he faced, and what he did—and did not—accomplish. He may not have fulfilled many of his campaign promises, but Obama did take credit for helping to make Americans—and the world—safer. “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland,” he asserted, adding that “core al Qaeda…is a shadow of its former self.” And in case anyone had forgotten, he was quick to remind his audience at MacDill: “Osama bin Laden is dead.”
The picture that Obama painted differs from the view held by the majority of Americans. According to a recent Pew Research poll, when it comes to “the country’s security from terrorism,” 75 percent of those surveyed thought that things had either gotten worse or stayed roughly the same since Obama’s election in 2008. A Gallup poll found that over half of those surveyed disapproved of the way Obama was handling terrorism. And while they were split on the issue of his performance in the foreign-policy realm, Obama’s overall rating was under 50 percent.
Whether or not this lukewarm and at times distrustful view of Obama’s role as a national-security president was a foregone conclusion is a question that historians will wrestle with for decades to come. But for now, three new books—Mark Landler’s Alter Egos, Jameel Jaffer’s The Drone Memos, and Mark Danner’s Spiral—capture how Obama aimed high in his rhetoric and ideals, and yet was often frustrated in realizing his goals.
Landler, a New York Times reporter who most recently served as the paper’s White House correspondent, compares Obama’s foreign-policy vision with that of Hillary Clinton, finding in the latter’s traditional hawkishness a perfect foil for Obama’s restrained ambivalence. Jaffer, a former deputy legal director at the ACLU and current director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, presents and examines a number of government documents surrounding Obama’s drone program. And Danner, who has long reported for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books on atrocities and human-rights violations, has turned what began as the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University into a lengthier and more theoretical disquisition on the long-lasting costs imposed on this country by the War on Terror.