Yesterday, asked if his terrorism policies were appeasement, Barack Obama gave a hard-edged answer: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement.”
Greg Sargent is uncomfortable with Obama’s response and today’s continuation of the theme by White House spokesman Jay Carney:
[T]here’s a delicate balancing act to be struck here, and as tempting as it might be to believe that this kind of thing is helpful politically, it’s worth asking whether this is a case in which less swagger and toughness equals more.
When it comes to national defense, some liberals become bed wetting worrywarts if a Democrat talks tough or shows a bit of swagger, but that’s not what Sargent is doing here. After the juvenile and often self-defeating swagger of the Bush administration, it’s nice to not worry every day that the president is going to flounce around in a jumpsuit playing tough guy and do something diplomatically or politically stupid. Sargent is right to question, though, if Obama was lapsing in to preening Bushian jingoism. But there are two reasons why I don’t think that’s the case.
First, this wasn’t some set-piece rhetorical and symbolic bombast like Bush riding in jet to the aircraft carrier. It was a press conference, and Obama was asked the question. Yes, the answer was probably worked out ahead of time, but Obama didn’t say “I’m tough,” he said deflected a question about whether he was tough. Some on the left found it unseemly that the president would publicly assert his satisfaction with the deaths of people killed while he’s been commander in chief. But it’s not like gloating about the capture of Saddam Hussein, who actually never attacked the United States. It’s also not like expressing satisfaction at the execution of a criminal, even one that every reasonable person would agree is odious.
Obama wasn’t glorying in the death of a person or the humiliation of an enemy. It’s not an unchallenged assumption, but most people do assume that each of those 22 Al Qaeda leaders and main operatives was committed to inflicting great harm on American citizens and our national interests. Until they were apprehended–which is most cases would be prohibitively risky or impossible–or killed, they posed an active and serious threat to Americans. Obama invoked their deaths, but he was also pointing out that in killing men who–again, an assumption–were committed to attacking Americans that the threat they represented toward Americans no longer exist.
That leads to the second point. Expressing satisfaction over the deaths of Al Qaeda members isn’t like inflicting indignities on the leaders or citizens of a defeated fellow nation-state. It’s also not like killing a figured beloved by a large population. Al Qaeda killed more Muslims than Americans. At least after 9-11 it was not particularly popular among Muslims–especially the Shia and other branches of Islam whom AQ viewed as apostates–so even if Obama is seen as gloating about killing Al Qaeda leaders, it’s won’t cause much backlash in Arab or Muslim populations. (The means by which some of them were killed, such as drone strikes that also kill innocents, and the collateral effects of those actions, is a different matter.) Al Qaeda is not a national liberation movement. There won’t be a future Al Qaeda state or government, so there’s no chance that highlighting these deaths will complicate a rapprochement with a government, state or people that may at a later date prove necessary.
There’s little risk that citing the deaths of Al Qaeda figures to defend himself from scurrilous partisan attacks will create future diplomatic or political problems for the Obama administration, nor will it undermine our national interests. It may be jarring to hear the president personally identify himself with the deaths of individuals. But our politics are jarring, we do have committed and ruthless people wishing to do us tremendous harm, and Obama’s answer about their deaths was appropriate to the question asked.