The Counterterrorism Consensus

How did liberals end up supporting the Obama administration’s continuation of George W. Bush's secret war on terror?

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.

Suddenly closing Gitmo didn't seem like such a hot idea. The fears of costs and security risks from such transfers were mightily overstated, but when key Democrats like Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and independents like Mike Bloomberg (not to mention practically the entire Republican Party) were complaining about allowing terrorists to be tried in American courts, it's not hard to imagine that public support for keeping Gitmo open quickly rose.

But what about drones? I asked Alex Cole, a political communications strategist, about this issue and he said to me that some of the early research on public attitudes toward the war on terrorism revolved around the analogy of the United States as a hunter and terrorists as the huntee. The key takeaway is that Americans generally prefer a more discrete method for killing terrorists rather than an all-consuming approach -- and the drone war fits that bill. One might say that Americans are both pragmatic and a bit ruthless on the subject of killing terrorists.

Today, with U.S. engagement over in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, the drone war looks like the single best means for keeping potential terrorists at bay -- and, more important, keeping U.S. troops out of harm's way. Indeed, at the same time that Americans want to maintain current policies on drones and detention they are also strongly supportive of returning troops home from Afghanistan.

This almost certainly is how the Obama administration is approaching the issue. Over the past nine months or so, the White House has taken crucial steps toward ending the legacy of the war on terrorism. Obama killed Osama bin Laden, pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, and has began ending the war in Afghanistan. But maintaining the current policies on detention and drones is a nice back-up strategy: not only is it an effective way to fight the dwindling groups of jihadist terrorists, but it limits the administration's political exposure if something terrible does happen.

None of this should come as a huge surprise if one looks closely at Obama's rhetoric from the 2008 campaign. Many of the administration's liberal critics on the left have strong memories of Obama blasting the Bush's civil liberties record. They recall Obama's pledge to close Gitmo, extend habeus corpus to terrorists, end torture and, in general, turn the page from the worst excesses of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush years.

But they have a slightly selective memory. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find many examples of candidate Obama pledging to close Guantanamo (though that was clearly and unequivocally his position). He didn't mention it, for example, at the acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Instead he said this: " I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell -- but he won't even go to the cave where he lives."

Not quite so touchy, feely there. Indeed, when Obama gave his major foreign-policy speech in July 2008 he said this, "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."

During 2008, even after the frustration of the Bush years, Obama's loudest public pledge when it came to terrorism was not to do less, but rather more. As a Democrat seeking the White House at a time of war this could hardly have come as a surprise; and now as a president seeking re-election it is even less surprising that he has continued this approach. But for those looking to Obama for leadership on this issue -- well, that would likely have to wait until after Election Day, if even then (a fact that was brought into stark relief by Obama's retreat on the NDAA debate).

In fairness, Obama -- even if he wanted to -- likely wouldn't be able to shut down Guantanamo (though he remains in support of closing the facility) or hold civilian trials for alleged terrorists in the United States. As for the drones, that policy isn't likely to stop unless the United States runs out of terrorists to kill. With more than 70 percent of the American people on his side there is little impetus for him to shift course -- no matter how much it might upset his liberal base of supporters (or the constitutional lawyer within him).

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The Insider

Meet Xi Jinping, China's heir apparent -- the cleanest, least offensive, most loyal politician the party could find.

There is a joke in China that the Communist Party actually doesn't mind elections, as long as it knows the outcome in advance. So though the stately, plump Vice President Xi Jinping still needs to officially stand for the position of general secretary to replace President Hu Jintao in October, the result -- barring disaster -- seems pretty certain. For Xi, a former pig farmer and provincial leader, and the scion of one of the reddest families in China, the last five years have been a campaign with Chinese characteristics to ensure that when he steps out behind the red curtain at the Great Hall of the People in six months' time, the last thing on anyone's mind will be a sense of surprise.

Xi, the son of a former vice premier, with an easy smile and the paternalistic manner of a well-seasoned Chinese leader, seemed destined to rise to the top. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi, like many educated youth, spent a decade farming in the backward inland province of Shaanxi; residents named him party secretary of the village soon after his arrival, a first among the 29,000 youths sent to the province from Beijing.

His real political career took off in the wealthy coastal province of Fujian, where he worked himself up to governor in the 1990s and avoided being implicated in a massive smuggling scandal. Appointed party boss in 2002 of the dynamic Zhejiang province, he briefly ran Shanghai after the felling of Party Secretary Chen Liangyu for corruption in 2007 before being elevated to the all-important Politburo Standing Committee during the party congress later that same year. He has been talked of as Hu's replacement ever since -- and like Hu, his ability in Fujian and Shanghai to avoid major scandals has stood him in good stead.

But it wasn't always clear that he would rise this far. In 1997, Xi, while still in Fujian as deputy party secretary, came in dead last in a vote by delegates for the 344-strong Central Committee, composed of the elite leaders of the Communist Party, largely because of a backlash against princelings, the sons and daughters of high-level officials. Xi took it in stride. In the space of only a decade, distaste for his privileged upbringing has been diluted by appreciation of his administrative abilities, his relatively clean record, and his ability to oversee booming economic growth in the provinces he has run. Unlike former President Jiang Zemin or current Premier Wen Jiabao, Xi's immediate family appears clean: His 19-year-old daughter is too young to be involved in business, and his wife too famous as an Army singer to risk the most obvious manifestations of corruption.

Like all good Chinese politicians, Xi used his family connections to his advantage, mobilizing support by calling upon his extensive networks of military and party elite. He has many friends among the party's elder establishment, people who know and trust him and his father, among them former Party Secretary Jiang and Jiang's chief political strategist and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong. He also has links with the military through a brief stint as a private secretary to a People's Liberation Army general in the 1980s.

Ever since the death of Deng Xiaoping ended the era of Chinese political strongmen, the key to success in elite politics is having fewer enemies than your potential competitors do. It's no longer enough to have heady support from a narrow range of figures. Although the party might not be ecstatic about Xi, as it showed during the voting in 1997, his elevation will alienate the smallest number of elites. And because of his broad network, many now stand to gain once he ascends to China's top post.

Perhaps more important is Xi's ability to play by the rules of the system that nurtured him. In March 2007, Xi moved to Shanghai to serve as the city's party secretary. According to the Hong Kong magazine Open, he was initially shown a luxury apartment, the size of which far exceeded the 250-square-meter limit allocated to senior provincial leaders. Xi turned it down with the comment that it could be better used as a convalescent home for elderly cadres, thus neatly sidestepping a potential black mark on his record.

Xi has also succeeded in avoiding knotty issues like health-care reform and social unrest. Those issues have been left to his Politburo colleague and possible rival Li Keqiang, who has been given these thankless policy areas, supposedly to train him for the job of premier. Xi, meanwhile, has been tasked with managing macroeconomic policy, overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and running the Central Party School -- a relatively straightforward and more glamorous portfolio. Despite the 2008 economic slowdown, China has continued to produce impressive GDP growth, and the Olympics were considered extremely successful from a domestic perspective. And Xi, like Hu before he ascended to party secretary, looks after Sino-American relations, which accounts for his visit to the United States this month. Li has the less attractive and more difficult job of maintaining positive links with a fractious European Union. It's impossible to say whether Xi received his portfolio because of luck or because of his ability to convince the party's powerful Organization Department to task him with an easier job than his rival, but it's one of the main reasons for his success.

Unlike in the United States, where politicians campaign on their outsider status, a desire to change the system, and a willingness to take responsibility for problems the country faces, Xi's slogan might as well be "the buck stops there." Xi shares the skill for deflection with his predecessor, Hu. As party secretary of Tibet in the months leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprisings, Hu mysteriously went missing on the night of April 29, when protesters attacked a police station in Lhasa, according to China analyst Willy Lam. Because of his absence, the head of the local police had to shoulder the responsibility of calling in the Army. The gamble paid off: The troops quelled the unrest, and the hard-line leadership in Beijing praised Hu for his actions. But had the Army failed, Hu would have been able to blame his subordinate.

But Xi hasn't wholly escaped controversy. He was married before, briefly, to the daughter of a former Chinese ambassador to Britain, who lived in the United States and now resides in Hong Kong. The fact that she chose to stay abroad and that Xi would be the first divorcé since Mao Zedong to run China has already created controversy. Some Chinese Internet commentators have claimed he plagiarized all or part of the Ph.D. thesis he wrote while governor of Fujian. And some see his decision to send his daughter to Harvard University as a vote of no confidence in the country's education system. None of these issues will derail his rise.

For the next six months, like Hu prior to his ascension to party chairman in 2002, Xi will lay low, producing at most a screed of accepted formula that won't leave him vulnerable to attack within the party. In January, Xi gave a grindingly orthodox talk on the need for cultural wholesomeness and the need for more "ideological control" over students. He parrots Hu in his quest not to offend his predecessor, talking of the need to preserve harmony, guard against forces of instability, and push "core socialist values," all Hu buzzwords. Nothing he has said publicly prefigures any radical departure from the previous decade. In the U.S. presidential campaign, surprise, grandiose declarations, and the daily clash among contenders form part of the testing process of possible candidates. The Chinese keep contention well out of sight; the less Xi looks like he is actually chasing the top slot, the better it is for him.

What lies behind the formal exterior that Xi presents to the world -- the side Americans will see during his visit -- is anyone's guess. During a 2009 visit to Latin America, he was caught on record railing against foreigners "with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country." To which he added: "China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?" This rare outburst, however, was the only time he publicly strayed from message. Everything in his background suggests he is a faithful, loyal conventional follower of party orthodoxy who has never been put in a position to question how the party functions or how it might undertake radical internal reform. From what we know, Xi is red -- through and through. There have been no rallying cries like those of Wen Jiabao for deeper political reform and wholesale change to the system.

The Chinese system is set up not for someone with big, bold ideas, but for the ultimate insider, the person with the best networks and the biggest vested interest in making the system work. And that person is Xi. The party elite need someone who can keep the economy humming and keep a lid on social discontent. But while Xi might be the best thing for Beijing, it might not be for the rest of the people of China.

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