From The Economist -- February 25, 2010:
Is Barack Obama Tough Enough?
Conservatives call him too weak to be a warrior.
Tell that to the Taliban.
If there is one thing conservatives agree on, it is that Barack Obama is not tough enough to be commander-in-chief. Some insinuate that he doesn’t love America enough to defend it wholeheartedly. Never before has a president “gone before so many foreign audiences to apologise for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined,” grumbles Mitt Romney, a once and no doubt future Republican presidential candidate. Even France is lecturing America on the dangers of appeasement, which is like “AIG lecturing us on financial responsibility”, scoffs Tim Pawlenty, another aspirant. Mr Obama is “the groveller in chief”, says Michelle Malkin, a conservative blogger.
An easy way to raise a cheer at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week was to bash the president for letting terrorists get “lawyered up”. To tumultuous applause, Marco Rubio, a young Republican firebrand from Florida, urged a more robust approach: kill the terrorists or capture them, “get useful information from them” and then “bring them to justice…in front of a military tribunal in Guantánamo, not a civilian courtroom in Manhattan.” An anti-Obama bumper-sticker asked: “So you’re for abortion but against killing terrorists?”
Most of these barbs are bunk. Yes, Mr Obama favours trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of September 11th 2001, in a civilian court. But that is not a sign of weakness. Several terrorists were successfully prosecuted in civilian courts under George Bush. And though Mr Obama is willing to admit his country’s failings, he is quite ruthless about blowing its enemies to scraps. American drones fired missiles at suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas 55 times last year, killing hundreds of jihadists and who knows how many civilians. This year, the killing has accelerated; so far more than a dozen strikes have been reported. Mr Obama orders assassinations at a far brisker pace than George Bush ever did. For some reason, his habit of blowing up alleged terrorists and bystanders from the air causes less global outrage than the smothering of a lone Hamas operative, allegedly by Israel, in a hotel room in Dubai. But whether you think it justified or not, it is hardly evidence that the president is “against killing terrorists”.
After more than a year in power, Mr Obama has still not figured out what to do with terrorist suspects captured on foreign soil. He has not yet fulfilled his promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay because he does not know what to do with the remaining inmates. Some are deemed too dangerous to release, but cannot easily be prosecuted. In some cases, evidence was obtained by coercion; in others, through intelligence sources that the administration does not want revealed in court. Mr Obama will not rule out holding them indefinitely without charge, but he knows this makes America look bad. He does not want to add to the problem by bringing more foreign jihadists into American custody. Instead, American forces are either killing them or letting less squeamish allies detain them.
In September, for example, America tracked down a much-wanted terrorist in Somalia. Saleh Ali Nabhan was accused of helping to blow up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and was thought to have been the main liaison between al-Qaeda and its Somali ally, al-Shabab. Had he been captured and questioned, he could have been a mine of useful intelligence. But there is no functioning Somali government to hand him over to, so American helicopters vaporised him. This seems to be the rule, not the exception. A recent Washington Post investigation of Mr Obama’s war against al-Qaeda leaders abroad found “dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions” by American forces.
Suspected terrorists caught on American soil are of course taken into American custody. But those caught in Iraq are swiftly handed over to the Iraqis. Those spotted in Pakistan are detained by the Pakistanis—as several senior Taliban commanders were in recent weeks, thanks in part to American intelligence. America maintains a prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, but this will be turned over to the Afghans by the end of the year. None of these countries has a reputation for comfortable cells and polite jailers. In short, it is far from clear that Mr Obama’s policies have led to gentler treatment for terrorist suspects abroad. The opposite may be true. Hence the howls of anguish from human-rights activists who once thought Mr Obama was their man. Hence, also, the urgent need for a coherent detainee policy.
Man of Steel
More generally, the notion that Mr Obama does not take seriously his responsibilities as commander-in-chief is risible. In Iraq, he is methodically withdrawing American troops as the country becomes more capable of self-government. In Afghanistan, admittedly after dithering for far too long, he has picked a sound strategy and is seeing it through. The surge of NATO troops into Helmand province appears to be working, at least so far. As for Iran, Mr Obama could always follow Sarah Palin’s advice and declare war on the mullahs so that people “decide, well, maybe he’s tougher than we think”. But that might have, well, negative consequences. Instead, he is trying to persuade China and Russia to go along with stiffer sanctions to hinder Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This may or may not work. The omens are not good: Iran announced this week a plan to build two new uranium-enrichment plants inside mountains, where they will be harder to bomb. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh argue, in Foreign Affairs, that Mr Obama should be thinking hard about how to contain Iran after it goes nuclear. The success of Mr Obama’s foreign policy will depend on his ability to choose between finely balanced evils. If he fails, it will not be for lack of steel.