Last week, two blockbuster New York Times 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 terrorism. 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.
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.)
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.
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 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.” And no one likes when gas prices go up.
Given those numbers, it’s not hard to imagine that an overwhelming majority of Americans would be fully supportive of a stealth cybercampaign 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.
The final piece of the puzzle for the White House is that 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 that 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.
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’s “Election 2012” channel and a fellow at the Century Foundation.