Why Obama Can Get Away With Being a Hawk

As a liberal, the president can push conservative policies and escape with relatively little criticism

In the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock told of "an ancient Vulcan proverb," which held that, "Only Nixon could go to China."

The proverb referred to the idea that hardliners like Richard Nixon can more easily make peace with enemies such as communist China. When Nixon visited China in 1972, his Cold War warrior credentials shielded him from any criticism on the right. Meanwhile, the left could only applaud.

That conservatives can more readily play the peacemaker is received wisdom across the galaxy. But the opposite dynamic is also true: It can be easier for a liberal president like Obama to act as a hawk.

We can see this with superficial issues, such as presidential humor. At the 2010 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama issued a warning to the Jonas Brothers, who were attending the event: "Sasha and Malia are huge fans but, boys, don't be getting any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator drones."

Given the civilian casualties caused by Predators in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this joke was a little close to the edge. When a liberal Obama delivered the zinger, he came across like Jon Stewart. But if Dick Cheney had said the line, he would have sounded like Ming the Merciless.

More importantly, Obama's leftist credentials make it easier to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Given the military failures on the ground, the growing unpopularity of the campaign, and the president's decision to send tens of thousands of extra combat troops, it's striking how little overt opposition there is to "Obama's War."

Where are the protesters?

Where is the resistance in Congress?

The left may not like the war but it's fairly quiet -- precisely because Obama is in the White House. In 2009, 27 percent of Democrats favored sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan compared to 61 percent of Republicans. But most Democrats are reluctant to openly criticize the president. Nancy Pelosi said of the Afghan War in 2010: "we've trusted [Obama] before, we trust him now."

Compared to when Bush was president, liberal advocacy groups like MoveOn.org have largely avoided mobilizing against America's wars. According to MoveOn's communications director, Ilyse Hogue, the hope that Obama will ultimately withdraw from Afghanistan, as well as the struggling economy, "has kept the wars from being a flash point for sustained political activism this past year."

When Obama plays the hawk he also wins friends on the center and the right. We like our presidents to act "against type" -- in other words, for Republicans to use carrots with our enemies, and for Democrats to use sticks. It suggests moderation and pragmatism: a president who isn't a prisoner of ideology. So, for Obama, the act of being hawkish -- almost regardless of how or where -- encourages the image of a steadfast guardian of the Republic.

And presidents have more credibility when they deviate from expectations. After all, if a perceived dove like Obama favors escalation in Afghanistan, then perhaps it really is necessary.

This explains a paradox. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are unpopular. Obama continued Bush's policies in Iraq and escalated in Afghanistan. Yet Obama enjoys some of his highest approval ratings on these issues. Why? Because Obama's hawkishness wins support from independents and conservatives. As the pollster Stan Greenberg put it: "voters are very responsive where Democrats talked boldly about our foreign policy of taking it to the terrorists."

By contrast, imagine how life would be if John McCain were president. McCain would also have escalated the campaign in Afghanistan. But Nancy Pelosi would probably not be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a Republican president. Instead, Democrats in Congress would be railing against the conflict, and liberal groups would be dusting off their anti-war banners.

Overall then, if future wars resemble Iraq and Afghanistan, for better or worse, it could be Democratic presidents who can more readily grasp the sword.

As another Vulcan proverb goes: "Only Obama could fight in Kandahar -- and keep the home front quiet."

Presented by

Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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