Last week, two blockbuster New York Times stories cast perhaps the most unfavorable light on President Obama’s foreign-policy performance since he took office. First, there was the revelation that Obama maintains a “kill list” of potential al Qaida 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 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-Sen. Obama was a loud, uncompromising advocate of ramping up cross-border drone attacks against al Qaida 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.”