Cohen: Obama's war on terror will win votes
Last week, two blockbuster news 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-Qaida targets and signs off personally on major drone strikes in the continuing global war on terror. The article, published in The New York Times, 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, also in the Times, 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. 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.) 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. Rare is the American war where such legal and humanitarian niceties mattered much to the electorate.
As for cyberwarfare with Iran, this falls into a similar category as drones. Americans don't like Iran and are deeply concerned about Tehran getting a nuclear weapon. A poll in March 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."
So it's not hard to imagine that a majority of Americans would support a stealth cybercampaign as an 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 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. The drones story is a reminder that Obama has taken the fight to al-Qaida, 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.
And 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.
If there's any place Obama is likely to get grief, it's from his own liberal base. The outcry from the president's left wing has been unremittingly harsh. But the fact that Obama's national security policies upset the left only further confirms his image as not your typical liberal afraid to use American power. This is, of course, a political canard, but a potent one -- and it has 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.
Michael A. Cohen is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine's "Election 2012" website and a fellow at the Century Foundation.