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Tide turning on presidential power

Updated: April 16, 2013 4:02PM

The ground is shifting for Republicans, Democrats and Americans in general over the scope of presidential power and U.S. foreign policy in ways that seemed unlikely only a few weeks ago.

The Republican Party is reconsidering its commitment to an assertive, interventionist role for the United States in world affairs and especially in the volatile Middle East. Democrats are shaking off their deference to President Barack Obama and expressing long-suppressed discomfort with his adoption of most of President George W. Bush’s war policies and Obama’s aggressive focus on using drones to kill anyone deemed an enemy combatant.

All this came together in the 13-hour filibuster by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last week, a kind of political earthquake that shook up the partisan landscape. At issue was the administration’s broad assertion — advanced in muddled ways by, especially, Attorney General Eric Holder but also by just-confirmed CIA Director John Brennan — of the authority to use drones, including to kill U.S. citizens on American soil. Exacerbating it all was the administration’s refusal to release its legal justification for conducting drone strikes and picking the targets. Launching one against a citizen in the United States would be an extraordinary event, Holder said, but his response to objections about it was that the administration had no intention to do so.

Only after Paul’s highly publicized filibuster — it was a rare case where a senator actually took to the floor to argue his position rather than rely on a procedural move — that Holder explicitly said the president does not have the authority to kill an American citizen who is “not engaged in combat on U.S. soil.”

By then passions on both sides had erupted and would vent for days after.

National security hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ridiculed Paul as “one of the wacko birds on the right” trying to make Americans “think that somehow they’re in danger from their government.’’ That exposed a GOP fissure between the hawks and neocons on one side and fiscal and social conservatives on the other side who have grown disillusioned with the human and fiscal costs of 12 years of war. Paul’s position played to their fundamental suspicion of expansive presidential power and of the idea of nation-building in cultures resistant if not hostile to Western values.

On the left, in a sign of big Democratic frustration with Obama for not releasing the drone legal memos, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) voted against Brennan’s nomination. That reliable barometer of liberal thinking, the New York Times, editorialized that it’s time for Congress to repeal the 2001 authorization for military force that is becoming “the basis for a perpetual, ever-expanding war.” It published an article by New York University law professor Ryan Goodman saying Holder hasn’t defined what “engaged in combat” means. He noted the administration acknowledged killing as enemy combatants people financing terrorism.

I count myself as a hawk who believes the commander-in-chief deserves broad latitude in protecting the country. The ever-shifting threat of Islamist terrorism demands the capability for a nimble, quick response. But the concept of checks and balance with Congress is fundamental. Moreover, the nation, and not just senators meeting in secret, has a right to see the legal basis for a president’s war-time decisions, especially when he decides an American citizen has turned traitor. I have no problem killing such an individual, and I don’t think most Americans do. We just want to understand how these decisions are made.

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