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The Hawk

How Obama escalated the war on terror—and why it might help him in 2012.

When America traded George W. Bush for Barack Obama, few thought the result would be an escalation in the American war on terror. Swathes of U.S. conservatives (but also some liberals) were ready to dismiss President Obama as too naïve and idealistic to be president in the face of a heightened terrorist threat. Moderates did not believe that a campaign based on hope and change would cause Al Qaeda terrorists to fear this president more than the previous one. In Europe, meanwhile, Obama was seen as someone who would roll back the vulgarities of the war and make Europe feel good again about its more police-driven approach to terrorism.

Today, however, the handful of dissenters from this line of thinking looks prescient. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, it is clear Obama won’t be outflanked by the right on counterterrorism. Sending a team of operatives into Pakistan without that country’s knowledge because we believed (correctly) that bin Laden was there is not the work of a softie. Yet that decision is only one achievement in Obama’s well-established, hawkish approach to the war on terror—an approach that, whatever one thinks of its ethical merits, will serve him well in his reelection campaign.

In August 2007, Obama warned, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan] will not act, we will.” At the time, this was seen as electoral bluster. Now, it just looks brutally honest. Not only has the president deployed 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, he has escalated the war in neighboring Pakistan and its tribal border area, Waziristan. Al Qaeda’s number three, Mustafa Abu Al Yazid, was killed by a missile strike in Pakistan in May 2010. Fateh Al Masri replaced him and shared his predecessor’s fate in Pakistan just four months later. Obama has approved approximately 180 lethal U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan against jihadist terrorists since becoming president—or an attack roughly every four days. This represents a 300 percent increase over the number carried out during the Bush administration. The CIA now also runs an army containing over 3,000 Afghan paramilitaries whose sole aim is to assassinate Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Obama said with some pride in his 2010 State of the Union address, “hundreds” of Al Qaeda terrorists were being killed or captured under his leadership, “far more” than under Bush.

Obama has also stepped up the war against Al Qaeda on another crucial front: Yemen. Action under Bush was largely reduced to counterterrorism training and a solitary 2002 drone strike against six Al Qaeda militants. Under Obama, however, military aircraft and cruise missiles were regularly deployed between December 2009 and May 2010. A cooling in relations with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh meant that intelligence was temporarily not shared as readily, and U.S. operations stalled. Yet, earlier this month, the U.S. carried out its first drone strike in Yemen since 2002, in an attempt to assassinate Al Qaeda commander Anwar Al Awlaki. Obama approved the targeting of Al Awlaki in early 2010, thus sanctioning the killing of a U.S. citizen—an unprecedented move in the war on terror.

In addition to being even more aggressive than Bush was militarily in the war, Obama has also continued some of the hawkish policies of the previous administration, bucking the liberal line. Within a month of becoming president, Obama had issued an executive order approving the continuation of extraordinary rendition. Guantánamo Bay remains very conspicuously open, with a core of around 50 detainees unlikely to be either released or tried. Military trials of other Guantánamo prisoners are also now set to restart. Bush’s PATRIOT Act, due to expire at the end of this month, is likely to be renewed; Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that it is needed “now more than ever.” The Obama administration recently backtracked on reading terrorist suspects their Miranda rights, with policy now stating that where investigators “conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence,” they will be allowed to hold domestic terror suspects longer than others without giving them a Miranda warning.

Whether all of these policies are good and right is, of course, an important debate to have. Politically speaking, however, Obama’s hawkishness should make Democrats feel good about 2012. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out for TNR Online, it is going to be tough for the Republicans to get the same traction on foreign policy and national security as they did in 2004 and 2008. And that, of course, leaves the GOP in real bind. In terms of national security—long a central Republican campaign issue—the GOP nominee will either have reframe the entire debate in a way that downplays Obama’s muscular successes, or that argues that these successes were the logical conclusions of Bush-era policies, which, in some cases, might very well be true.

But, if the nominee does the latter, he or she will hardly be taking credit away from the incumbent. And, if he or she does the former, then the old joke about Rudy Giuliani’s campaign statements containing a noun, a verb, and “9/11” will find its more legitimate counterpart in a three-word question every Obama supporter will ask: “Who Killed Osama?”

Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.