Why President Obama's kill list controversy is only good news for his reelection campaign.
Last week, two blockbuster New York Times stories cast perhaps the most unfavorable light on President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy performance since he took office. First, there was the revelation that Obama maintains a "kill list" of potential al Qaeda targets and signs off personally on major drone strikes in the continuing global war on terror. While Obama’s involvement suggests a certain level of rigor in target selection, the article also highlighted the fact that the president is ordering military strikes, including against U.S. citizens, without any congressional or judicial oversight.
Next came the revelation that under Obama’s presidency the United States has not only continued but ramped up a de facto war with Iran, with cybertools intended to disrupt Iran’s efforts to create a nuclear weapon.
Both stories speak to the lack of transparency in the Obama White House on matters of national security — as well as to the president’s somewhat promiscuous use of force against declared and undeclared enemies of the United States. But if one puts aside the many good reasons to be concerned about such policies on legal and moral grounds, it’s highly unlikely that Obama will be hurt politically by these revelations: if anything, quite the opposite. While some members of the president’s own party might be offended by Obama’s actions, the great majority of Americans seem blithely unconcerned. The stories will, in fact, neutralize Republican attack lines and bolster the president’s already strong public ratings on national security. In a country that still maintains ill will toward Iran for the hostage crisis 30-plus years ago and fears the potential machinations of jihadi terrorists, Obama’s actions are political winners.
To understand why the existence of a presidential kill list won’t do much to dent Obama’s strong foreign-policy standing, it’s important to remember that Americans don’t just like drone warfare — they love it. A Washington Post poll this February found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy. (It’s hard to think of anything that 83 percent of Americans agree on these days.) In addition, a whopping 77 percent of liberal Democrats support the use of drones — and 65 percent are fine with missile strikes against U.S. citizens, as was the case with the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed last September by a drone.
The popularity of unmanned vehicles is not difficult to understand. They’re cheap; they keep Americans out of harm’s way; and they kill "bad guys." That unnamed and unseen civilians may be getting killed in the process or that the attacks stretch the outer limits of statutory law are of less concern. Indeed, rare is the American war where such legal and humanitarian niceties mattered much to the electorate.
And, in fairness to Obama, nothing about the drone war should be a major surprise to the American people. Throughout the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama was a loud, uncompromising advocate of ramping up cross-border drone attacks against al Qaeda in Pakistan. His August 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention didn’t feature a passionate call to close the Guantánamo Bay prison or wind down the war on terror. Rather, Obama said this: "I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. You know, John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives."
Not a lot of subtlety there, but then again not much in the way of ambiguity about Obama’s plans as president.
As for cyberwarfare with Iran, this falls into a similar category as drones. Americans don’t like Iran; they are deeply concerned about Tehran getting a nuclear weapon and have demonstrated a surprising willingness to countenance a military solution to stopping Iran from getting a bomb. In fact, a March 2012 poll indicated that 53 percent of Americans support taking military action against Iran "even if it causes gasoline and fuel prices in the United States to go up." And no one likes when gas prices go up.
Given those numbers, it’s not hard to imagine that an overwhelming majority of Americans would be fully supportive of a stealth cybercampaign as a cheap and efficient way to thwart Iran’s nuclear aspirations. That such a move might represent an act of war by the United States against Iran is again likely of peripheral concern.
If anything, it’s a mark in Obama’s political favor — a sign of his seriousness in keeping Americans safe from terrorists, from Iranians with nuclear weapons, or from other hyped-up potential threats to the United States. Beyond the immediate political benefit of proving Obama’s toughness, both New York Times stories have the added benefit of undercutting a key Republican critique. If there is any one issue on which Obama is somewhat vulnerable to GOP attack it is on Iran and the notion that he has not been tough enough in preventing that country from developing a bomb. Indeed, Republicans have been clamoring for increased covert action against Iran for months. Now, the cyberwar story demonstrates that Obama is doing precisely that. And the drones story is a further reminder that Obama has taken the fight to al Qaeda, which includes the killing of Osama bin Laden and now the terrorist group’s No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi. The White House can hardly go wrong in reminding Americans of that fact.
The final piece of the puzzle for the White House is that neither Obama’s drone war nor his secret war against Iran engages any serious partisan passions. Republicans are hardly going to be critical of kill lists or covert war against Iran. They might keep their praise to a minimum, but these are precisely the sorts of policies that Republicans have long supported. Even presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has been anything but consistent in his attacks on Obama, would find it difficult to hit Obama on these fronts. In reality, there is a disquieting political consensus in support of these policies.
If there is any place where Obama is likely to get grief, though, it is from his own liberal base. Since the revelations appeared in the New York Times, the outcry from the president’s left wing has been unremittingly harsh. But it’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign in Chicago is worrying much about such criticism. That Obama’s national security policies upset liberals only further confirms his image as not your typical Jimmy Carter/Michael Dukakis/John Kerry liberal afraid to use American power. These, of course, are political canards, but potent ones — and they have clearly shaped the Obama administration’s thinking on foreign policy since the day he took office.
In the end, there are plenty of legitimate policy reasons for the course that Obama has set in fighting terrorism and restraining Iran’s nuclear program. But it doesn’t take a cynic to recognize there is a tangible political benefit here as well. After all, these stories weren’t leaked to the New York Times by accident.