That look of disdain on President Obama’s face in his debate with Mitt Romney last week, that impression of wishing he was just about anywhere else? Perhaps it was a reflection of the president having heard it all before.
Four years ago, candidate Obama seemingly had all the answers. The words flowed easily. On Wednesday evening, he listened as his Republican challenger spoke expansively, energetically and deceptively about creating jobs, reducing the deficit, working with the other side.
A president comes to know better, the complexities and frustrations, the tricky balancing of priorities, ideals clashing with realities. In that way, a most instructive chapter of the Obama years has been his handling of the fight against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists, terrorism their tactic of choice.
In 2008, Obama often, and rightly, jabbed the Bush White House for presenting a “false choice between our safety and our ideals.” He pledged respect for the rule of law and the principle of checks and balances. He promised to address the moral taint, taking such steps as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and ending the use of torture. On many fronts, he has kept his word.
The president closed down the CIA secret prisons and its “enhanced interrogation” program. He has brought improved procedures and standards to the military commissions. He has cast aside the worst excesses of the Bush years, including the persistent rhetoric of fear.
Remember Dick Cheney saying the election of John Kerry would risk a “devastating” terrorist attack?
What the president also has encountered are the many complications and hard choices, often in difficult-to-navigate gray areas.
Guantanamo remains open, even with John McCain, David Petraeus and Colin Powell on the president’s side. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have refused to allow the detainees to be held in this country. Lawmakers also stood in the way of trying terrorists in federal civilian courts. They have done so, even as the courts have proved successful in handling many such cases, overlooking that their use, instead of a military commission, adds credibility and moral authority to convictions.
Before the raid that ended his life, Osama bin Laden highlighted the effectiveness of the drone strikes dramatically escalated by the president. He cited how the attacks disrupted his network, the drones a hovering presence, suddenly, unexpectedly arriving from the sky.
The drones also have the element of precision so crucial to the fight. That was sorely missing in the Bush years. It helps to strike or detain with real evidence. Anything less, and your position erodes, any gains overwhelmed by a broader loss of confidence in what you are doing.
The New York Times and others have reported on the care the Obama team takes in selecting targets, the president weighing the “imminent threat.” Yet, in all of this, there is the risk of false assurance.
A recent study from Stanford University and New York University found that al-Qaida leaders aren’t alone in their unease. Entire communities in Pakistan have been affected, drones more precise but hardly without collateral damage and casualties.
Donald Rumsfeld famously wondered about keeping pace, prosecuting a war against al-Qaida as greater numbers join its cause. Skeptics reasonably warn that drones too easily can become a recruiting tool in the fashion of Guantanamo.
They add that their use is easy and cheap, no Americans at risk, the tally of the dead seeming proof of getting the job done. The killing also removes the aspect of capture, no choices about trials or detention.
No drone strike was more controversial than the one a year ago that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. His credentials as an al-Qaida operative and propagandist were plain. His American citizenship presented an obstacle. The Justice Department crafted a memo justifying the hit (still held in secret). The essentials haven’t changed, an American president on his own ordering an execution.
Better to have some mechanism for independent oversight of the drone program, not to mention release of documents covering its rationale. The potential harm is no less than Mitt Romney returning to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as he has indicated and a campaign memo advised, as reported recently in the New York Times.
What the president has accomplished politically is to deflect criticism that somehow he is weak on national security. Republicans have looked for openings, most recently with the attack and deaths at the American consulate in Benghazi.
We long have told ourselves that eventually al-Qaida types will strike. What is required in countering the possibility is an approach that seeks a balance, tough enough yet open and engaging, a mixture of drones and the likes of Christopher Stevens.
The president has followed along this line, tracking the center, bringing elements of the Bush years, adding in the main what he has pledged. Parts raise concerns, others mirror familiar limits. The whole reflects the unique education of a president.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.