Have Obama's Drone Strikes Hurt Our Standing Abroad?

Jeffrey Goldberg posed that question to foreign policy influentials Robert Kagan, James Steinberg, and Nicholas Burns.
 

The video above is worth watching as an interesting example of what several influential foreign policy voices think about President Obama and his policies, and I appreciate that Jeffrey Goldberg, who is less concerned about drone strikes than I am, raised questions about them in that panel and elsewhere in the course of the excellent Aspen Ideas Festival moderating he's been doing.

To address a couple of points the panelists made:

1) Responding to the observation that President Obama's policies have made America even less popular in many parts of the Middle East than we were during the Bush Administration, career diplomat Nicholas Burns states, "I think you're being very selective when you talk about the Middle East. Talk to Libyans and talk to Tunisians about President Obama, you gotta give him some credit for having transformed our policy in both places."

As someone who thinks that the War in Libya was waged illegally, I contest the idea that I must give Obama credit for it. And surely America's standing in Egypt is more important than our standing in Tunisia. I mean, come on. 

But there's a larger point to be made about this sort of thinking.

My colleague Robert Wright argues that we're living in a world where ever smaller groups of people are able to obtain weapons of mass destruction. He argues it's vital to our long term security to decrease the overall amount of hatred directed at us - that doing so decreases the chance that, for example, some angry young man whips up a crude bio-weapon in his parents' basement and kills us all.

So how should we think about our intervention in Libya, if it made most Libyans happier with America, but also made a not insignificant number of Libyans furious at America's intervention, whether because our weapons killed their kid or because they were tortured by the rebels we supported or just because they were on the side that we were fighting against? Wright would say that we ought to be very concerned about making more people hate us intensely for any reason.

Goldberg would likely respond that it isn't the number of terrorists that matters as much as the levels of support or opprobrium that they get from their friends and countrymen - that there will always be people who hate us, but they are far less powerful if they don't have the support of others.

In any case, it isn't clear that intervention in Libya had an effect on Libyan public opinion that made us safe, even if lots of people think somewhat better of us (but some now passionately hate us).

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage


2) James Steinberg (former Deputy Secretary of State for the Obama Administration) argues that liberals who are disappointed with President Obama just weren't listening during the 2008 campaign. He's right that Obama said he'd escalate the war in Afghanistan and that he wouldn't respect Pakistani sovereignty if he had a shot at Bin Laden.

If liberals are upset about those things, they weren't listening.

But surely Steingberg understands that President Obama misled voters about many subjects and has broken many explicit promises. Those who were listening carefully must recall his insistence that the president doesn't have the power to order the military into action without Congressional permission absent an imminent national security threat; surely they remember his broken promise to be the most transparent administration ever, and to protect whistleblowers; perhaps they were listening when he complained about the state secrets privilege; and maybe they listened closely all along, but never heard anything about waging secret, undeclared drone wars in multiple countries while calling all dead males of military age "militants."

There is a lot that Obama has done that contradicts the campaign that he ran, and the suggestion that all those who were disappointed "just weren't listening" is demonstrably wrongheaded.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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