The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has stunned the nation and the world and raised a number of critically important issues about the future of U.S. government policy. Among these are hotly contested aspects of national security law, including the extent of government surveillance and secrecy, the use of drones for targeted killings, the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, immigration and refugee policies, and the deployment of U.S. forces in various roles across the Middle East. The stakes could not be higher: in the balance hang national security, democratic accountability, the rule of law, civil liberties, and the very nature of the republic.
Two recent books can help navigate these vital issues. Charlie Savage’s Power Wars and Karen Greenberg’s Rogue Justice both analyze the U.S. government’s handling of national security since 9/11. Their thoughtful examinations of the counterterrorism policies of the administrations of George W. Bush and Obama deserve to be widely read, by the public at large and by those who will staff the next administration. So, too, does Savage’s detailed assessment of the Bush administration in his previous book, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. Taken together, Savage’s Power Wars and Takeover will stand among the definitive accounts of the United States’ approach to national security and law over the past decade and a half. Greenberg’s less detailed but clear and engaging book will be accessible to broader audiences and serve as an important reminder of the Bush administration’s excesses.
At the heart of both books lies the question of whether Obama fulfilled the expectation that he would change the national security policies and executive-power claims of his predecessor. Greenberg finds Obama’s performance deficient; Savage’s assessment is more balanced. Both authors are at times too harsh in their judgments, especially Greenberg, whose accusations of “hypocrisy” and “betrayal” are imprecise and exaggerated. In fact, Obama rejected
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