Obama Guards His Left Over Terrorism

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University May 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama used the speech to outline and justify his administration's counterterrorism policy, including increased cooperation with Congress on matters of national security, added transparency regarding the use of drones, and a review of current threats facing the United States. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama’s speech today defending his conduct in the war on terror was notable for what he was defending it against — not against the soft-on-terror (and maybe sorta-kinda-Muslim) attack that Republicans have lobbed against him since he first ran for president, but against critics on the left.

It is a sudden and welcome turnabout. When Obama first appeared on the national scene, he was a political novice, a liberal Democrat who had made his name opposing the Iraq War, a constitutional law professor, and his middle name was Hussein. The need to defend his hawkish credentials was an, and perhaps the, essential task of his 2008 election. And the dynamic persisted throughout his first term, as Republicans used events like Obama’s attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and the Christmas bomber to revive their weak-on-terror caricature.

Having fortified his right flank, Obama’s left was totally exposed. Rand Paul signaled the first volley, by launching a high-profile filibuster speech on drones that attracted the sudden support of fellow Republicans who had expressed zero previous qualms. The Department of Justice leak-prosecution story was the event that turned Obama’s civil liberties weakness into a gaping vulnerability. As I’ve written, its political importance was a pure accident of timing. A new (inaccurate) report on Benghazi, followed by the IRS scandal, created a sudden frenzy.

That’s when the DOJ leak story dropped. And what would ordinarily be considered a policy dispute — and one that attracted the interest only of a handful of liberals and libertarians — became a scandal pursued by Republicans, who previously had stood to Obama’s right on the issue. The DOJ story was a problem for Obama because it was a legitimate case of abuse, unlike the nothing-burger Benghazi story or the IRS episode for which the White House seemed to bear no responsibility. The legitimacy of the DOJ policy, even though it’s not a “scandal” by any normal definition, kept the damaging “scandal” meme alive.

Obama used his speech today to shore up his exposed left flank. He did so in several ways. He argued for his administration’s drone strikes, which have become a symbol of out-of-control military power, as a flawed but necessary step that minimizes civilian casualties in comparison with the alternative. Obama promised “to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.” He insisted that he would not and could not use drones to attack an American citizen on U.S. soil. He promised “to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.” And he pledged a review of the DOJ’s approach to prosecuting national security leaks.

Politically, if not substantively, Obama’s speech today represents a watershed moment. For the first time in the post-9/11 world, the domestic political threat in the war on terror comes from the left rather than the right.