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Brookings: Keeping on Offense

Authors: Benjamin Wittes, and Daniel L. Byman, Professor at Georgetown University and Research Director of the Saban Center at Brookings Institution
April 20, 2012


The next president should keep after al-Qaeda but mend relations with Congress on terrorism, reports this Brookings Institution campaign briefing.

At the dawn of the Obama administration, counterterrorism seemed to be one of the new president's biggest weaknesses. Unlike the preceding administration, which repeatedly emphasized that it was keeping America safe from a post-September 11 homeland attack, Barack Obama promised during the campaign to "restore the rule of law" and "close Guantánamo," in other words, to smooth off the hard edges of the War on Terror. Within months of taking office, Obama found his various moves in this direction thwarted by opponents who painted the new president as weak. Two near-miss terrorist attacks domestically—one on an airplane, the other in Times Square—accentuated the political problem. By the time the president had completed his first year in office, counterterrorism ranked among his political vulnerabilities.

What began as weakness, however, has over time morphed into strength. As a result, Obama goes into the 2012 campaign enjoying far higher public confidence in his pursuit of terrorists than on other matters. He has developed a strong operational record both in overseas counterterrorism and against domestic jihadists. He has made bold decisions that have enraged his political base. He has also been lucky. And barring a successful strike on the homeland in the coming months, he will have turned counterterrorism from a sword wielded against him to a sword in his own electoral hand.

Unfortunately, Obama's operational successes have not been matched by comparable success in establishing a durable legal framework for counterterrorism activities. Despite his victories against al Qaeda overseas, the president finds his position on counterterrorism in the eyes of Congress growing steadily worse. Some of this trouble reflects frankly unreasonable policy constraints that Congress has attempted to slap on executive operational flexibility. Some of it, however, reflects poor and timid leadership on the part of Obama, who has steadfastly refused to invest his political prestige and capital in the legislative politics of counterterrorism. As a result, the next president will face a significantly improved strategic climate with respect to America's principal terrorist enemy but also a set of thorny policy disputes with the legislature—which seems bent on pushing approaches that no president, Republican or Democrat, is likely to embrace.

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