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Friday, February 22 , 2019, 9:07 pm | Fair 50º


Susan Estrich: Obama Is Caught in The Middle with Kill Lists and Leaks

Those unhappy with the president's stewardship of national security should worry that Romney will be worse

The usual rule in politics is that if both extremes are mad at you, then you must be doing something right — or at least something politically smart. Ultimately, elections are won in the middle, and if the middle is with you, you win.

In November, that is.

But this is June, and what would be a very good place to be four or five months down the line might feel like a tight spot, between a rock and a hard place, right now.

That’s where President Barack Obama finds himself these days on national security.

The left, or some pretty vocal parts of it, is fit to be tied that their president is keeping real “enemies lists” in the White House — and not lists of people to be stiffed on goodies or even, wrong as it is, to be investigated by the IRS, but to be killed. That the targets are not Pentagon analysts or nosy reporters but enemy combatants, as the past administration would put it, doesn’t change the dearly held principle that we don’t target people for assassination — or at least that we don’t do it unilaterally.

The right, or some pretty vocal parts of it, is up in arms about what they say are politically motivated leaks from the White House that are damaging to national security (including said enemies list), with Sen. John McCain calling for investigations and special prosecutors and the whole nine yards because our enemies also read the papers. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has gone so far as to warn that Israel should be prepared to go it alone against Iran because the White House would leak any details of a planned strike.

There are certainly common-sense answers to both sides, with which most Americans in the middle would probably agree. As for the left, the obvious answer is that if the president can deploy forces across the globe armed with weapons and bombs and the like, it’s not clear why he can’t authorize drone attacks against terrorists who aim to kill us.

Why not target our enemies in the hopes of reducing casualties on both sides? No one has claimed that the people who are being targeted are innocents, or that they got the wrong guys when they killed Osama bin Laden and his deputy. I’m not persuaded by the argument that these guys (who are obviously not U.S. citizens entitled to the protection of our Constitution) deserved a day in court when their goal was to destroy the rule of law, not live by it.

As for the fact that Obama is doing this without approval, I’m not sure where folks want him to get that approval. Surely not Congress, if you’re worried about leaks. From the courts? We have special “FISA” courts for the approval of wiretaps, but approving targeted assassination is definitely not in their job description.

As for the conservatives, it’s not clear how the leak of the enemies list undermines us in the eyes of our enemies (and certainly not more than the Bush administration’s endorsement of water boarding). Is it a surprise that we would target the leaders of al-Qaeda? Exactly what did anyone — friends or enemies — think those drones were doing heading into Pakistan? If we weren’t targeting the most dangerous guys or, worse, if Obama’s people were out there touting the liberal line, I have no doubt that the radio waves would be sizzling with complaints that this president just doesn’t have what it takes to wage a war on terror.

As for Israel, while there are certainly some valid concerns about the administration’s “even-handedness” in the Middle East, I don’t think leaking a secret plan to target Iran would be on any fairly compiled list. When it counts — as with the raid on bin Laden’s compound — mouths are sealed.

All of this certainly could be seen as part of the skirmishing of the opening weeks of a long baseball season, almost sure to be forgotten when the real deciders — the swing voters, the moderates, the people who don’t follow politics 24/7 — tune in first for the conventions and later, when the barbecues are put away after Labor Day, for the debates.

But with the economy slumping along, you can’t help but be struck by the sense that Obama is out there under attack from everyone with a bullhorn (except the gay community). That doesn’t help with fundraising (Mitt Romney out-raised him last month, no doubt because the supporters of his failed opponents are catching the train as it leaves the station) or with building an organization.

As the long, lazy days of summer begin, Obama, whom most observers still think is likely to win this election, doesn’t look like a winner. It might be time for his supporters to start thinking about the alternative. Does anyone really think Romney would be more reticent to act unilaterally on national security? Criticism is healthy in a democracy, from friends and opponents. But there are certain times when it is less helpful than others, and now is one of them.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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