Last fall, the Dish hosted an impassioned debate about the morality and ethics and prudence of targeting US civilians who have joined the Jihadist enemy in seeking to attack the US. My own position is that we are at war, and that avowed enemies and traitors in active warfare against the US cannot suddenly invoke legal protections from a society they have decided to help destroy.
And so my response to the death of Anwar al Awlaki is obviously not going to be Glenn Greenwald's, although I respect his consistency and integrity on this question, even though I think his position minimizes the stakes of the conflict, and misreads the nature of war.
My response is to note what the Obama administration seems leery of saying out loud – in line with its general response to al Qaeda which is to speak very softly while ruthlessly killing scores of mid-level and high-level operatives. This administration actually is what the Bush administration claimed to be: a relentless executor of the war in terror, armed with real intelligence and lethally accurate execution. Sure, Yemen's al Qaeda is not the core al Qaeda of Pakistan/Afghanistan – it's less global in scope and capacities. But to remove one important propaganda source of that movement has made all of us safer. And those Americans who have lived under one of Awlaki's murderous fatwas can breathe more easily today.
The same goes for al Qaeda more generally. Obama has done in two years what Bush failed to do in eight. He has skillfully done all he can to reset relations with the broader Muslim world (despite the machinations of the Israeli government) while ruthlessly wiping out swathes of Jihadist planners, operatives and foot-soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has thereby strengthened us immeasurably both in terms of soft and hard power.
Compare the two presidents. One unleashed a war in Afghanistan he then left to languish, and sparked an unjustified war in Iraq, that became a catastrophe of mass death and chaos. He both maximally antagonized the Arab and Muslim world and didn't even score a major victory against the enemy. In many ways, Bush gave al Qaeda an opening in Iraq where it never had one before, and allowed its key leadership to escape at Tora Bora. The torture program, meanwhile, fouled up our intelligence while destroying our moral standing in the world.
Obama has ended torture and pursued a real war, not an ideological spectacle. He has destroyed almost all of al Qaeda of 9/11 (if Zawahiri is taken out, no one is left), obliterated its ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, found and killed bin Laden, in a daring raid pushed relentlessly by the president alone, capturing alongside a trove of intelligence, procured as a consequence of courage and tenacity rather than cowardice and torture.
I know the next election will be about the economy. But what it should also be about is the revelation of the Republicans as fundamentally weak on national security. Caught up in their own ideology, they proved for eight years they'd rather posture and preen than do the intelligent, relentless, ethical intelligence work that is only now leading to victory.
Obama, in other words, is winning the war Bush kept losing. And since Cairo, we have witnessed the real flowering of democratic forces in the Middle East – unseen during the Bush-Cheney years. For all the tireless efforts of the Israelis to cripple US foreign policy against Jihadism, Obama has done the job. If he fails to make this case in the next election, he will, in my judgment, be blowing an important opportunity to reinforce a structural advantage against the GOP on national security.
Back in 2001, I wondered if Bush would be the president to win this war, while hoping he would. I wondered if his errors might lead to a successor who learned from them. That hope has now been fulfilled – more swiftly and decisively than I once dared to dream about.