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Obama’s “death panel” for drone attacks.

Published in the Sunday Herald on June 10, 2012.

In the first summer of Barack Obama’s presidency, as Democrats struggled to pass a bill guaranteeing universal health care in the USA, Sarah Palin condensed the fears of Republicans into a single phrase: reform would create “death panels” of bureaucrats with the power to save some patients and let others die. Her warning had no basis in fact, but it proved to be remarkably effective in defining “socialised medicine” as a government assault on the individual rights of Americans.

Republicans and their supporters in the media were relentless in their use of the term, so it is striking that following revelations of an actual death panel, meeting every Tuesday in the White House to decide who to add and who to rub off a “kill list” of suspected terrorists, there has been nothing but praise for the President, from both sides of the aisle. National security is a rare area of bipartisan consensus in Congress: the more belligerent, the better.

In the year since Osama Bin Laden was killed, Congress has renewed the Patriot Act, extending the surveillance state into every corner of American life, with barely a murmur of dissent. It has passed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. When the CIA assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, on direct orders from the president, every one of the Republican contenders to challenge Obama, bar Ron Paul, said they would have done the same.

Writing in The New Republic, lawyer Jack Goldsmith, who served in the George W. Bush administration, identified eleven areas in which Obama’s national security policy has mirrored that of his predecessor, including rendition, targeted killings and a definition of the war on terror that strips “enemy combatants” of legal rights. “The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit,” Goldsmith concluded. “Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.”

On Thursday, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said that Obama should offer “a little tip of the hat” to his brother for setting the course. General Michael Hayden, who served as CIA Director under George W. Bush, said that Obama’s aggressive counter-terrorism strategy had a “Nixon to China quality” – commending it as a courageous approach that defies the expectations of his most loyal supporters.

“After the global outrage over Guantanamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians,” noted John Bellinger, a senior national security lawyer in the Bush admininstration.

Hayden and Bellinger’s comments were reported in the New York Times article that revealed the existence of the “kill list” and the “nominations process” behind it. This was clearly approved by the White House, which set up an interview with Obama’s national security adviser Thomas Donilon, in which he lauded his boss as a decisive, hands on leader. “He’s a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States,” Donilon said.

In this election year, national security is one of Obama’s few trump cards. A recent CNN poll gave him a 52% to 36% edge over Mitt Romney on the question of who would make the best Commander-In-Chief. A Washington Post survey, released in February, found that 83% of voters, including 77% of self-described liberal Democrats, support the use of drones to combat terrorism.

The Obama campaign has played to this strength. Vice President Joe Biden offered a “bumper sticker” of the administration’s notable achievements: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Romney’s team briefly complained that Obama’s trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death was a nakedly political exercise, with some justification, but soon dropped the subject. For once, the adverts portraying a presidential nominee as weak on national security are being run by the Democratic party.

Democrats can barely contain their glee at this turn of events. Peter Bergen, from the New America Foundation, wrote an editorial in the New York Times extolling Obama as a “warrior president… one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argued that Obama has had “a better first term in the White House on foreign policy than any Democrat going back to Truman, and frankly better than most Republicans’ first terms as well.”

There has been sharp criticism from the left, but while polls show such strong support for the drone attacks, these voices are easily dismissed as marginal. “People talked about Dick Cheney running an executive assassination ring,” observed reporter Jeremy Scahill of The Nation. “Obama has normalised assassination for a lot of liberals who would have been outraged if it was President McCain… they are deafeningly silent on this issue.”

Civil rights lawyer Glenn Greenwald, writing in Salon, argued that Democrats must shoulder their share of the blame for the deaths of civilians in drone attacks: “Obama — by leading blind-partisan Democrats and progressives to cheer for these policies rather than denounce them — has converted what were just recently highly divisive and controversial right-wing Assaults on Our Values into fully entrenched bipartisan consensus. But worse than that, he has put a prettier and more palatable face on extremely ugly policies.”

Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until May 2010, said the drone attacks will continue as long as the American public supports them. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do: low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he told the New York Times. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”