Obama’s Successful Counterterror Strategy

Last Friday, a U.S. drone strike killed radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — a “propagandist for aspiring jihadists around the globe” — and another American citizen, Samir Khan, co-editor of the al Qaeda English language propaganda magazine, Inspire. President Obama called Awlaki’s death “a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active affiliate,” referring to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While while some have questioned Awlaki’s influence on AQAP’s operations, a report out today from the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center said that killing Awlaki has weakened AQAP, but “the only way to eliminate the threat is to take out its Yemen leaders.” Indeed, al-Awlaki’s lawful killing removes a genuine threat to the United States, but it brings Yemen no closer to peace and stability, writes CAP terrorism expert Ken Gude. But there is another significant aspect to his death. “It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them,” one senior U.S. official said. “Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. It’s hard for them to attack when they’re trying to protect their own back side.” But also, more than just weakening AQAP, Awlaki’s death — and indeed the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden — highlight’s President Obama’s impressive record in combating terrorism since he moved in to the Oval Office.

NO BIG DEAL? Conservatives immediately played down the import of killing Awlaki as if trying to prevent the president from benefiting politically. “I think it’s important as individual al Qaeda figures and other terrorists are killed that we not read more into it than there is,” former Bush administration official John Bolton said. Fox’s Gretchen Carlson, oddly, seized the moment to wonder whether Obama is weak on terrorism. Others saw Awlaki’s killing as a good opportunity to promote torture. GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said that the info that led to Awlaki “probably” came from torturing Gitmo detainees and Vice President Cheney, while reluctantly admitting that Obama’s counterterror strategy has been successful, demanded an apology from the president for rebuking the Bush administration’s torture polices.

THE SHIFT: Despite banning the use of torture and moving toward closing Guantanamo Bay, many analysts, particularly former Bush administration officials, haven’t noticed much difference in Obama’s counterterror strategies from those of his predecessor. “Barack Obama embraced the bulk of the Bush counterterrorism policies as they stood in January 2009,” said former Bush Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith. Obama had changed “virtually nothing with respect to existing CIA programs and operations,” said former Bush administration CIA lawyer John Rizzo just last month. But what has signified Obama’s counterterrorism policy versus Bush’s is focus. “We had pushed too many resources into the fight in Iraq [when] the real enemy was Al Qaeda and was Osama bin Laden,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said shortly after bin Laden’s death. Not only did Obama revive efforts to get bin Laden shortly after he took office, but his push to wind down the war in Iraq shifted both resources and focus to the main terror threat to the United States.

THE RESULTS: The president has significantly increased drone attacks on suspected terrorists from the days of the Bush administration and “these covert actions have become an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy,” writes Tara Mckelvey at the Daily Beast. Indeed, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation, in Pakistan for example, Obama has increased drone strikes there significantly: 33 in 2008 increased to 53 in 2009, to 118 in 2011, and 60 so far this year. While this policy raises important moral and legal questions, Obama’s focus on al Qaeda has yielded results. In addition to bin Laden and al-Awlaki, ABC’s Jake Tapper notes that nearly 20 more senior al Qaeda operatives have been killed since 2009. “No president since George H.W. Bush has had more foreign-policy successes happen under his watch than President Obama,” MSNBC’s First Read noted last week, which added, “The death of bin Laden. The dismantling of al Qaeda. The ouster of Khaddafy. And the end of combat operations in Iraq. Yet when you look at polls and Obama’s approval rating, he’s getting almost no credit from the American public, a la Bush 41.”

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