There are few areas of greater disappointment for liberal supporters of President Barack Obama than his policies on civil liberties. From the failure to close Guantanamo Bay and his ramped up drone war to the continued reliance on indefinite detention, military commissions for accused terrorists, and the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that potentially allows for the killing of American citizens without due process, Obama's presidency, or so the argument goes, has been one broken promise after another.
Yet, none of this seems to be having any effect on Obama's political standing -- even among Democrats. The results of a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll provide compelling evidence of how little a price Obama has paid for these policies. According to the poll, 70 percent of respondents support the president's decision to keep Guantanamo Bay open. Indeed, backing for Gitmo is actually higher today than it was in 2003. Among the president's political base, 53 percent who self-identify as liberal Democrats -- and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats -- are also supportive.
What about drone strikes? In total, 83 percent of Americans are on-board with the use of drones -- a mere 4 percent are strongly opposed. Even more shocking, when asked if they still back the policy if American citizens are being killed without due process (like Anwar al-Awliki), 65 percent approve and only 26 percent disapprove. Among Democrats, the policy has broad, majority support.
What is one to conclude from these numbers? Are progressives, as Glenn Greenwald suggests, "repulsive hypocrites" who have shifted their position on civil liberties simply out of political expediency? Well, perhaps. After all, in December 2008, 52 percent of Democrats were in support of closing Guantanamo Bay -- in February 2009 just after Obama took office and promised to close the facility the number jumped to 64 percent. It's not hard to draw the conclusion that Democrats who strongly opposed Bush-era policies on civil liberties are a tad less outraged today at the same decision because their party's president is in the White House.
Still base partisanship may not fully capture what is happening here. Rather, the more likely conclusion is that no matter who is sitting in the White House there will be strong support for policies that are seen to be thwarting terrorists and keeping Americans safe -- no matter the legality or moral probity.
First of all, Guantanamo has generally had majority support among Americans since 2003. The biggest exception was in 2008 and 2009 -- but that was also a time when both Obama and his opponent Sen. John McCain wanted to close down the facility. As a result, support for keeping Gitmo open became something of an outlier in U.S. political debates. So it would not be surprising if Americans were taking their cues on the issue directly from their political leaders.
Second, opposition to Gitmo has never necessarily been about Gitmo, per se. The detention facility became, during the Bush years, a stand-in for opposition to the president's policies in fighting the war on terrorism. It was a short-hand symbol for torture, for warrantless wiretapping, for secret prisons, for the failed war in Iraq, for Abu Ghraib, and indeed for every shady or nefarious act perpetrated or allowed by the Bush administration in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. Gitmo became the symbol for the short-sighted decisions that diminished America's image in the world.
Today, the worst excesses of the Bush years have, for the most part, been ended or at the very least are no longer front and center in public debates. As the most disturbing public elements of the war on terror have been eliminated, it is understandable that there is less reason to be opposed to Guantanamo's continued presence. Yet, all of that changed in the spring of 2009 when Obama's plan to close the facility and transfer its inmates to prisons in the United States met with fierce political opposition in Congress.
Shutting down Gitmo might have elicited polite applause on the campaign trail or a nod of the head, but that was before it meant terrorists would be shipped from Cuba to prisons in Illinois or for trials in New York City. And this, says political pollster and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Jeremy Rosner, activated the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) effect.