For the first time in decades the Democratic Party will nominate a presidential candidate whose reputation as a tough, formidable Commander-in-Chief seems secure. Throughout much of the Cold War, the Republican Party held an edge on the “toughness” issue, be it Goldwater vs. Johnson, or Nixon vs. McGovern, or Reagan vs. Carter and Mondale, or Bush vs. Dukakis. Not since 1960, when John F. Kennedy condemned the Eisenhower/Nixon administration for passively standing by while the Soviet Union surpassed the United States has the Democratic Party been so well positioned to outflank the GOP on an issue Republicans once owned. Obama’s war against al Qaeda and its terrorist allies has been remarkably successful, highlighted by the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, 2011. No successful terrorist attack on the American mainland has occurred under President Obama’s watch, a boast which George W. Bush used to great effect in the years after 9/11. While Mitt Romney will try to make Obama’s proposed defense cuts an issue, it is hard to see this resonating with a public increasingly weary of the nation’s burgeoning national debt. The once sweeping and altogether formidable accusation of Democratic “softness” toward the Soviet Union, later supplanted by the claim that Democrats were averse to the use of force, now appears to be a relic of the pre-9/11 past.
Ironically, Obama’s success in the conflict formerly known as the “War on Terror” is due in part to his continuation, and in some cases expansion, of policies begun during his predecessor’s administration. Despite his harsh condemnation of George W. Bush’s national security policies in 2008, President Obama left most of Bush’s security policies in place. Once again the transition from the campaign trail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seems to have had a sobering effect, one that is no doubt reinforced every morning by the unsettling information contained in the President’s Daily Brief. President Obama pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by January, 2010, yet that facility remains very much in business. Additionally, the Patriot Act was renewed by Obama with little or no alterations, and mirroring the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, Obama opted for a “surge” of American forces in Afghanistan. At the same time the “Drone War” grew exponentially in Pakistan (according to the New America Foundation, between 2004 and 2008 George W. Bush authorized 42 drone strikes while that number expanded during the first two years of the Obama administration to 180 strikes) and was extended into Yemen, while the portfolio of the military’s special forces units was enlarged. In spite of Obama’s criticism of George W. Bush’s use of presidential signing statements, this practice has also continued apace, with many of Obama’s statements defending presidential prerogatives in the national security arena.
In addition, the power of the presidency expanded to include congressionally unauthorized hostilities in Libya and, for the first time in American history, an American citizen was placed on a Central Intelligence Agency “kill list.” Despite the fact that Obama’s supporters claimed in 2008 and in the early days of his presidency that the new President was committed to transparency and accountability, the administration refused to release the memos produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel justifying the unusual step of targeting an American citizen for assassination. Since President Obama’s inauguration his Justice Department has pursued six prosecutions under the Espionage Act against leakers of classified information, accounting for twice as many prosecutions brought by all preceding administrations together, an accomplishment exceeding the wildest dreams of Dick Cheney.
All this from a candidate who vowed to reject the “imperial” impulses of the Bush-Cheney administration (in 2007 Obama said, “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution”). For the past three years, as columnist and former Bush speechwriter David Frum observed, President Obama’s national security policies could be characterized as “continuity you can believe in.” As a consequence of continuing Bush’s policies, Barack Obama will be able to blunt efforts by Mitt Romney to paint him as an Ivy League educated community organizer unwilling to grapple with the world as it is (assuming no more so-called “apology tours” between now and November 6th). As almost every observer agrees, the health of the economy will be the issue on the table that makes or breaks Barack Obama’s presidency. But it would be an error to analyze this election without keeping in mind what is likely to be off the table – the issue of national security (barring any crisis in North Korea or Iran, although should a crisis occur the Commander-in-Chief would no doubt benefit, regardless of the outcome in the long run). Perhaps President Obama will serve as a model for future Democrats by teaching his party’s presidential wannabes the importance of protecting one’s national security flank.
Stephen Knott is Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.