Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Obama soars on wings of drones

  • Print

   TWO blockbuster New York Times stories this month cast perhaps the most unfavourable light on U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy performance since he took office.

 First, there was the revelation 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 rigour in target selection, the article also highlighted the fact 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 cyber-tools 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 Obama will be hurt politically by these revelations: If anything, quite the opposite. While Obama’s actions may offend some members of the president’s own party, 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 Americans don’t just like drone warfare — they love it.

 A Washington Post poll this February found 83 per cent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy. (It’s hard to think of anything that 83 per cent of Americans agree on these days.) In addition, a whopping 77 per cent of liberal Democrats support the use of drones — and 65 per cent 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-senator 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 Guantanamo 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 53 per cent 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 it when gas prices go up.

 Given those numbers, it’s not hard to imagine an overwhelming majority of Americans would be fully supportive of a stealth cyber-campaign 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 favour — 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 he has not been tough enough in preventing that country from developing a bomb. Indeed, Republicans have been clamouring 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 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.

 The final piece of the puzzle for the White House is 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 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 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 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’s Election 2012 channel and a fellow at the Century Foundation.

 — Foreign Policy

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Selinger addresses stadium lawsuit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Weather Standup- Catching rays. Prairie Dog stretches out at Fort Whyte Centre. Fort Whyte has a Prairie Dog enclosure with aprox. 20 dogs young and old. 060607.
  • A Great Horned Owl that was caught up in some soccer nets in Shamrock Park in Southdale on November 16th was rehabilitated and returned to the the city park behind Shamrock School and released this afternoon. Sequence of the release. December 4, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google