Drones and strange bedfellows: Why neocons are showing Obama some love

And why liberals are starting to turn a cold shoulder. As John Brennan heads into his confirmation hearing, it's apparently opposite day in Washington

President Obama nominates "kill list overseer" John Brennan to become the new CIA director.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Finally, President Obama's ramped-up drone war is big news, says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. With "kill list overseer John Brennan" facing his CIA directorship confirmation hearing Thursday, and threatened resistance from some senators, the White House leaked a white paper outlining its justification for drone strikes against al Qaeda leaders — even U.S. citizens — and agreed to show its secret legal rationale to the congressional intelligence committees. So, "how is everyone reacting to the unprecedented attention being paid to drone strikes?"

Some neoconservatives have suddenly begun defending the president. John Bolton, former ambassador to the UN, says the drone program "appears to be consistent with the policies of the Bush administration," in which he served. Max Boot of Commentary insists Obama's drone memo is a "careful, responsible document." I'd half expect John Yoo to start praising Obama if he weren't busy "turning away in disgust" at the McRib's disappearance from his local McDonald's. Dick Cheney has yet to comment. Meanwhile, President Obama is getting more criticism than usual from normally friendly quarters. [The Atlantic]

That isn't all that surprising, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "The white paper is naturally being denounced on the anti-antiterror left, which only shows how out of this world these critics are." (Watch Jon Stewart lay out the liberal case below.) And if national security hawks are defending Obama on this issue, it's because the white paper shows that "Obama has embraced the unilateral, even pre-emptive powers that George W. Bush used in prosecuting the war against al Qaeda."

If John Yoo or Dick Cheney had written it, the document would no doubt be less defensive in asserting executive powers. There might be less talk about "balancing analysis" and more of Constitutional prerogatives. But the Obama paper gets to the correct legal conclusion.... We've written before that this Administration should do more to capture and interrogate terrorists in order to prevent future attacks, rather than defaulting so often to drone strikes. But its drone warfare is legal and necessary to protect America. [Wall Street Journal]

Well, the really striking — and disturbing — part of the white paper isn't the Obama team's legal rationale for extrajudicially blowing terrorists to smithereens at will, including U.S. citizens, says Tom Junod at Esquire. That's been "remarkably consistent" throughout the Obama presidency. What's new and important here is the inkling we get "of what the king's ministers are whispering in the king's ear."

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And I do mean "king," because anyone who takes the time to read the leaked white paper will be struck by how ancient, how almost Shakesepearan are its concerns. For all the Obama administration's efforts to characterize "targeted killing" as a modern solution to a modern problem, the white paper suggests that its real quandary with regard to citizens who have taken up with the enemy is as old as power itself: How to eliminate them without being accused of murdering them.... These are the moral questions that the Constitution was written to address by means of a legal framework. The leaked white paper seems to address them in a different way, in a kingly way, in an almost pre-constitutional or perhaps post-constitutional way. [Esquire]

The white paper is "certainly not something that makes the breast swell with pride," says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. But the "question of whether an American forfeits his due process rights when he joins an enemy army is a complicated one," and I'm not sure anyone in Obama's shoes would act very differently.

This is different from torture, where I do draw a bright line. Aside from the practical issues — it doesn't elicit solid confessions — there are clear legal and moral ones. We've signed international declarations that we will not torture. That's our word to the world. When we go back on that, everyone else can, and the result is chaos, chaos we created. But this is an internal matter. [That said,] it is definitely alarming that a president can arrogate to himself this kind of power, whoever the president is. And no, I would not be writing differently about this if the president were George W. Bush. [Daily Beast]

Of course, there's been a lot of soul-searching and pontificating about Obama's drone war, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. But there's a reason Congress hasn't made much of a stink about the issue over the past four years. "Put simply: Americans love drones." A series of polls shows that Americans' support for drone strikes "is not only wide but also bipartisan," and if conservatives are more forgiving of Obama now, perhaps it's because more Republicans than Democrats approve of the strikes. How about killing American terrorist suspects — "the question that stands at the heart of the recent flare-up in Congress"? In a Washington Post/CBS News poll a year ago, two-thirds approved.

The reason drone strikes are popular? Because they are perceived to be effective in reducing the threat of terrorism without endangering American lives.... To be sure, making policy decisions simply based on what the public wants (or thinks it wants) is a dangerous game. But, it's also important to remember as the drone debate gains steam in Washington that there is little public appetite for an extended look at how unmanned attacks fit into our broader national security policy. Minds are made up on the matter. And, if the public has anything to do with it, drones are here to stay. [Washington Post]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.