Instead of misreading his 2008 foreign policy mandate, President Obama shrewdly perceived that the voter distaste for the war in Iraq was not a complete rejection of a robust foreign policy, nor was it a call for the return of liberal doves. Instead, Obama understood the public doesn’t so much have a moral problem with killing bad guys — we like safety and security — but it’s just that we don’t want to be troubled with the mess.
Like the boss who always says ”my door is always open,” and that he’s “always happy” for his employees to “bring problems to his attention” — the American voter likes to believe he can handle the truth. But deep down, we want to hire people to keep the problems from getting on our desks in the first place. We want to have plausible deniability, or at least a sense of moral ignorance, and Obama has given it to us via secrecy (and drone strikes). The president realizes this, and — as long as too many American boys and girls aren’t coming home in coffins — voters have been relatively indifferent to events occurring on other continents.
It’s as if, rather than eschewing war, Obama figured out the politically correct guide to it — how to conduct it in as unobjectionable a fashion as possible. Rather than a rejection of his predecessor’s policies, he simply tweaked them, streamlined them, made them smarter and more palatable. For example, Obama figured out the importance of eliminating distasteful visuals that might appear on TV. It’s one thing to sort of know something is happening — but seeing it forces us to confront it.
Obama knows that Americans are ironically more squeamish about enhanced interrogation than about simply killing terrorists, and so (despite the potential loss of intelligence information), Obama prefers to go that route. It’s for our own good. Sure it seems odd that outright killing is highly preferable to waterboarding, but we are visual creatures, and keeping these people around is annoying. Remember, our goal is simply to avoid the mess. We don’t want to have to confront unpleasantness. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is our motto.
In fairness, Obama is aided by the fact that the people who might normally object to this style of warfare are his political base. They have little incentive to call out their guy. “[A]t this point, there’s no partisan gain to be had from it: given that it’s a policy supported by both parties,” writes Glenn Greenwald at Salon. “It doesn’t help one side or the other win an election, so what’s the point of talking about it?”
Greenwald is one of the few liberals to consistently oppose the policies used in the war on terror (many liberals found their opposition magically ending between November of 2008 and January of 2009). Those voices are few and far between — mostly because Americans are far more concerned about their physical security than abstract concerns.
Obama is arguably waging war as viciously as his predecessor, but he is troubling us much less with it. This is smart. And for this, we are largely grateful. After all, we hire people to make problems go away — or at least, to keep us from having to deal with them. And unlike George W. Bush, Obama has mostly done that.