The Obama administration has to be ecstatic about the New York Times and Newsweek stories that detail the president’s personal involvement in the killing of terrorists. Politically speaking, these lengthy accounts will render worthless all the knee-jerk Republican prattle about how Obama is supposedly a Jimmy Carter wimp who just wants to read the bad guys their Miranda rights. The GOP’s soft-on-terrorism mantra has been blasted by a drone.
Granted, any American who cares about due process and civil liberties will find plenty to squirm about in these stories. According to The Times, Obama personally approves “every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.” He and his top counter-terrorism advisers basically decide, without any government oversight or public accountability, which al Qaeda suspects deserve to live or die.
For the first time, the administration has publicly sketched the criteria that guide its hit jobs; in the words of adviser John Brennan, “The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives. It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
That’s more than we knew before – the kill program was cloaked in virtually total secrecy – but killing terrorist suspects has proved to be a messy business, with pragmatism frequently trumping morality. Obama insists on making these hard calls. If the suspects are in their teens but still deemed to be an imminent threat, they die. If dangerous suspects are living with their wives and families, sometimes the wives and families die too. If any military-age males happen to be in the targeted zone, too bad for them; they’re typically deemed to be terrorists as well, because, as one Obama official told The Times, “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization – innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs.”
War is always brutal, replete with the unintended consequences that befall bystanders who are known in the trade as “collateral damage.” According to war scholar Paul Fussell (who died last week), the Allies in the wake of D-Day killed 12,000 innocent French and Belgian civilians who just happened to live too close to the Nazi-controlled railway lines. And there’s no reason to think that the shadow war against al Qaeda would be any cleaner – quite the opposite, in fact, because these combatants don’t even wear uniforms.
What bugs Obama’s liberal critics is that he is orchestrating these hits in the first place, that he is basically conducting a “take-no-prisoners” policy that brings to mind the abuses of the Bush-Cheney era. Here’s former civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald, dissing the Obama policy with his trademark snark: “No late-night wrestling with conscience for this Nobel Peace laureate. Even his most radical decision – ordering an American citizen assassinated (a reference to Anwar Al-Awlaki) without a whiff of due process or transparency – is ‘easy’ for him, and he’s so very ‘comfortable’ with ordering people killed, say his aides who believe this to be a compliment.”
We can endlessly debate the efficacy of Obama’s shadow war, and since it does involve Big Issues about national security and the national character, it’s certainly a debate worth having. But I want to end where I began, by viewing this policy through the political prism in the midst of an election year. Most Americans are perfectly happy to have such a vigilant president. The GOP meme about Democratic “weakness” is as dead as Awlaki.
Mitt Romney didn’t utter so much as a peep yesterday about the president’s kill list policy. What could he possibly say – that Obama “isn’t tough enough” on al Qaeda? There’s no way that Romney can get to Obama’s right on the most critical test of being a commander-in-chief. So much for the old Cheney-Rove-Giuliani line, about how Obama and the Democrats are supposedly stuck in a “pre-9/11” mindset. As for the attacks on Obama from the left, from critics like Greenwald, that doesn’t tick off the White House one bit; what better way to reassure centrist swing voters about this president’s national security vigilance than to have the liberals up in arms?
It’s noteworthy that so many Obama advisers, led by Brennan, spoke on the record to the Times and Newsweek reporters. The administration knows darn well how the narrative of a hands-on president battling the bad guys will play with the electorate. Civil liberties issues aside – and, yes, those issues are valid – a president can never be too tough on terrorism. There is no political downside to that. And it renders the Republicans mute, stripped of their simplistic rhetorical weaponry.
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