Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Former Bush speechwriter -- Obama too tough on terrorism?

Guest post by Peter Henne 

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. This is his fifth guest post at The Reaction.


Of all the critiques that a Republican might level at President Obama, one would think that "you're killing too many terrorists" would not be one of them. But it is. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has been on the warpath against President Obama. He's written a book -- Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack -- that lambasts the administration's terrorism policies and is now going after the president's use of Predator drone strikes to eliminate al Qaeda-connected terrorist operatives overseas. Yet it's not for the reason you might think.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Thiessen and I share somewhat of an affinity -- we share an alma mater in Vassar College (he is the class of '89, I am '05). Its ultra-liberal reputation notwithstanding, Vassar seems adept at producing conservative politicos; my school's other political celebrity alum is Rick Lazio, who unsuccessfully challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2000 New York Senate race. Ever loyal to the beloved alma mater, I read Thiessen's piece, and found it wanting.

Thiessen is hardly the first person to criticize Obama's use of Predator drone strikes. Many liberal critiques of Obama's strategy involve the collateral damage and legal issues surrounding the covert use of force. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these arguments, and they deserve America's attention. But Thiessen links his critique of Obama's drone strikes to a critique of Obama's decision to end the use of torture. So Thiessen does not want to end the use drone strikes for humanitarian reasons, he wants to avoid killing terrorists so we can capture and... torture them.

The rationale is less than apparent at first. After reviewing Thiessen's work experience, however, it appears to be just another blatant politicization of national security issues by a GOP operative. There is nothing wrong with the attempt to moderate the use of force, as long as it is informed either by sound pragmatic or moral concerns. Connecting debates over the use of airstrikes to debates over the use of torture in order to score political points, however, does nothing but undermine the public conversation on national security.

There is also the potential hypocrisy here. Who has heard of a Republican arguing Obama is being too forceful in the fight against terrorism? While I am hesitant to attack Republicans for advancing a position besides knee-jerk militant triumphalism, I have a hard time believing that individuals like Thiessen would applaud similar calls for restraint from Democrats. During the Bush Administration, Democrats often criticized Bush's use of force on the grounds that it distracted us from the real threats, but they were pilloried by the GOP attack machine, possibly including some of Thiessen's speeches.

Again, it is alright to debate the moral and pragmatic issues behind the use of airstrikes to kill terrorists. And it would be admirable to see a conservative pundit make a principled stand on national security that breaks with the Republican Party line. Thiessen's arguments, however, appear to be a cynical political move, of the type that paralyzed the marketplace of ideas in the Bush Administration and contributed to the numerous foreign policy blunders of those years.

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