The Counterterrorism Consensus

How did liberals end up supporting the Obama administration’s continuation of George W. Bush's secret war on terror?

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

There are few areas of greater disappointment for liberal supporters of President Barack Obama than his policies on civil liberties. From the failure to close Guantanamo Bay and his ramped up drone war to the continued reliance on indefinite detention, military commissions for accused terrorists, and the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that potentially allows for the killing of American citizens without due process, Obama’s presidency, or so the argument goes, has been one broken promise after another.

Yet, none of this seems to be having any effect on Obama’s political standing — even among Democrats. The results of a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll provide compelling evidence of how little a price Obama has paid for these policies. According to the poll, 70 percent of respondents support the president’s decision to keep Guantanamo Bay open. Indeed, backing for Gitmo is actually higher today than it was in 2003. Among the president’s political base, 53 percent who self-identify as liberal Democrats — and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats — are also supportive.

What about drone strikes? In total, 83 percent of Americans are on-board with the use of drones — a mere 4 percent are strongly opposed. Even more shocking, when asked if they still back the policy if American citizens are being killed without due process (like Anwar al-Awliki), 65 percent approve and only 26 percent disapprove. Among Democrats, the policy has broad, majority support.

What is one to conclude from these numbers? Are progressives, as Glenn Greenwald suggests, "repulsive hypocrites" who have shifted their position on civil liberties simply out of political expediency? Well, perhaps. After all, in December 2008, 52 percent of Democrats were in support of closing Guantanamo Bay — in February 2009 just after Obama took office and promised to close the facility the number jumped to 64 percent. It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that Democrats who strongly opposed Bush-era policies on civil liberties are a tad less outraged today at the same decision because their party’s president is in the White House.

Still base partisanship may not fully capture what is happening here. Rather, the more likely conclusion is that no matter who is sitting in the White House there will be strong support for policies that are seen to be thwarting terrorists and keeping Americans safe — no matter the legality or moral probity.

First of all, Guantanamo has generally had majority support among Americans since 2003. The biggest exception was in 2008 and 2009 — but that was also a time when both Obama and his opponent Sen. John McCain wanted to close down the facility. As a result, support for keeping Gitmo open became something of an outlier in U.S. political debates. So it would not be surprising if Americans were taking their cues on the issue directly from their political leaders.

Second, opposition to Gitmo has never necessarily been about Gitmo, per se. The detention facility became, during the Bush years, a stand-in for opposition to the president’s policies in fighting the war on terrorism. It was a short-hand symbol for torture, for warrantless wiretapping, for secret prisons, for the failed war in Iraq, for Abu Ghraib, and indeed for every shady or nefarious act perpetrated or allowed by the Bush administration in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. Gitmo became the symbol for the short-sighted decisions that diminished America’s image in the world.

Today, the worst excesses of the Bush years have, for the most part, been ended or at the very least are no longer front and center in public debates. As the most disturbing public elements of the war on terror have been eliminated, it is understandable that there is less reason to be opposed to Guantanamo’s continued presence. Yet, all of that changed in the spring of 2009 when Obama’s plan to close the facility and transfer its inmates to prisons in the United States met with fierce political opposition in Congress.

Shutting down Gitmo might have elicited polite applause on the campaign trail or a nod of the head, but that was before it meant terrorists would be shipped from Cuba to prisons in Illinois or for trials in New York City. And this, says political pollster and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Jeremy Rosner, activated the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) effect.

Suddenly closing Gitmo didn’t seem like such a hot idea. The fears of costs and security risks from such transfers were mightily overstated, but when key Democrats like Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and independents like Mike Bloomberg (not to mention practically the entire Republican Party) were complaining about allowing terrorists to be tried in American courts, it’s not hard to imagine that public support for keeping Gitmo open quickly rose.

But what about drones? I asked Alex Cole, a political communications strategist, about this issue and he said to me that some of the early research on public attitudes toward the war on terrorism revolved around the analogy of the United States as a hunter and terrorists as the huntee. The key takeaway is that Americans generally prefer a more discrete method for killing terrorists rather than an all-consuming approach — and the drone war fits that bill. One might say that Americans are both pragmatic and a bit ruthless on the subject of killing terrorists.

Today, with U.S. engagement over in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, the drone war looks like the single best means for keeping potential terrorists at bay — and, more important, keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. Indeed, at the same time that Americans want to maintain current policies on drones and detention they are also strongly supportive of returning troops home from Afghanistan.

This almost certainly is how the Obama administration is approaching the issue. Over the past nine months or so, the White House has taken crucial steps toward ending the legacy of the war on terrorism. Obama killed Osama bin Laden, pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, and has began ending the war in Afghanistan. But maintaining the current policies on detention and drones is a nice back-up strategy: not only is it an effective way to fight the dwindling groups of jihadist terrorists, but it limits the administration’s political exposure if something terrible does happen.

None of this should come as a huge surprise if one looks closely at Obama’s rhetoric from the 2008 campaign. Many of the administration’s liberal critics on the left have strong memories of Obama blasting the Bush’s civil liberties record. They recall Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo, extend habeus corpus to terrorists, end torture and, in general, turn the page from the worst excesses of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush years.

But they have a slightly selective memory. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find many examples of candidate Obama pledging to close Guantanamo (though that was clearly and unequivocally his position). He didn’t mention it, for example, at the acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Instead he 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 quite so touchy, feely there. Indeed, when Obama gave his major foreign-policy speech in July 2008 he said this, "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."

During 2008, even after the frustration of the Bush years, Obama’s loudest public pledge when it came to terrorism was not to do less, but rather more. As a Democrat seeking the White House at a time of war this could hardly have come as a surprise; and now as a president seeking re-election it is even less surprising that he has continued this approach. But for those looking to Obama for leadership on this issue — well, that would likely have to wait until after Election Day, if even then (a fact that was brought into stark relief by Obama’s retreat on the NDAA debate).

In fairness, Obama — even if he wanted to — likely wouldn’t be able to shut down Guantanamo (though he remains in support of closing the facility) or hold civilian trials for alleged terrorists in the United States. As for the drones, that policy isn’t likely to stop unless the United States runs out of terrorists to kill. With more than 70 percent of the American people on his side there is little impetus for him to shift course — no matter how much it might upset his liberal base of supporters (or the constitutional lawyer within him).

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