President Obama’s decision this weekend to authorize capture and rendition of a top terror target in Libya has reignited questions about his use of Bush-era tools and tactics — and has given more ammunition to critics who say it’s time he makes a clean break from policies of the past.
Just as the Libyan government on Monday condemned the U.S. operation that captured al Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi, a coalition of top human-rights and civil-liberties groups wrote a letter to Mr. Obama urging him make good on his campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
Mr. Obama’s continuing embrace of rendition, along with his inability to shutter Guantanamo, are proof, analysts say, that the president’s lofty rhetoric as a candidate has collided head-on with the realities of being the commander in chief.
“Part of it is the problems are more complex than they seem on the outside,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a Seton Hall University Law School professor who specializes in national security, human rights and constitutional law. “I think there’s been an institutionalization of war-on-terror policies such as indefinite detention, military tribunals, the expanded use of drone strikes. The policies have been reformed, but they’ve continued. Ironically, President Obama, through his more-moderate sounding approach, has probably helped make these policies more sustainable.”
The White House confirmed Monday that the president ordered the al-Libi raid, along with a failed attempt to capture a senior al-Shabab terrorist network leader in Somalia.
Since the raids, administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have stepped forward to defend them.
“He is a legal and an appropriate target for the U.S. military,” Mr. Kerry said of al-Libi.
Legality aside, renditions such as this — the White House wouldn’t say on Monday where al-Libi is being held — were a frequent target of candidate Obama.
In 2007, Mr. Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the U.S. must end “the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night … of detaining thousands without charge or trial.”
On the campaign trail, he repeatedly pledged to close Guantanamo, painting the facility as a stain on America’s global reputation.
But Guantanamo is still open and renditions continue — though in fairness, the administration maintains that al-Libi will be tried in an American court.
Still, partisan critics have gleefully pointed out the chasm between Mr. Obama’s campaign words and his presidential actions.
“Bush’s 4th term continues: No-lawyer interrogations; Secret renditions; Snatch & grab on sovereign soil; Indefinite detention,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, a press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama also has come under fire for ramping up U.S. drone strikes, criticized by human-rights groups at home and abroad for their civilian casualties.
But inaction on Guantanamo, which continues to house terrorism suspects indefinitely, remains the most glaring unfulfilled promise.