With the unemployment rate above 8% for the last 33 consecutive months, it is little surprise that the President’s job approval is only at 43%. An early October Gallup poll found 46% of respondents would vote for a generic GOP candidate vs. 38% who would re-elect President Obama. Currently, Americans are laser-focused on the economy, and their commander-in-chief is not living up to their expectations. In fact, registered voters in 12 swing states favor a GOP candidate by 16 percentage points over Obama on handling the federal budget deficit and debt. They also prefer a Republican candidate by seven percentage points on reversing high unemployment.
The only area where President Obama showed a modest advantage was an unlikely one for a Democratic candidate – defense. The same Gallup poll showed respondents favored the President by a percentage point in an area that has traditionally been a Republican strength.
As a Republican, it is painful to admit that Obama’s record on defense has been strong, but one must concede that the President has had an unbroken string of operational military victories. Absent a weak economy, these successes would make it difficult for any Republican candidate to dislodge the President from the White House.
The President’s first major national security test came when Somali pirates hijacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship. The President’s initial response seemed tepid, tentative, and weak, as the stand-off stretched on for five days. However, the President ultimately provided the military with the wherewithal to deal with the pirates appropriately. Navy snipers resolved the crisis by killing three Somali pirates and successfully freeing the ship’s captain. Not only was the action a tactical success, but also it sent a message to future pirates that seizing American ships is not likely to be a profitable enterprise.
Since President Obama took office, the United States has dramatically expanded the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, killing more than 1,500 suspected militants in Pakistan. In 2010, the President expanded the CIA’s UAV program over the tribal areas of Pakistan to 14 drone orbits, each of which usually includes three drones. Furthermore, the President delegated to the CIA the decision authority to target militants. The President now receives notification after strikes, not beforehand. In an action no Republican President could ever take without provoking an ACLU lawsuit, President Obama also used these drones to assassinate an American citizen accused of inciting violence against other Americans – a particularly gutsy move.
Many of Obama’s opponents criticized his Libya intervention as not being in America’s strategic interest, and his execution of the mission as “leading from behind.” Yet the mission was a textbook “economy of force” operation, where the United States used a minimum of force to achieve maximum effort. America’s role in destroying Libya’s air defense system, “provid[ing] more than 70 percent of the surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities,” and executing “70 percent of refueling missions” was critical to the mission’s success. The mission also provided a post-Iraq template for future American military operations that are essential for key allies, but not in vital American strategic interests.
President Obama’s crowning operational achievement was his daring decision to send a covert team into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Then-Defense Secretary Gates described it as “one of the most courageous calls – decisions – that I think I’ve ever seen a president make.” The President could have taken a more risk-averse approach and bombed bin Laden’s dwelling with 32 2,000-pound bombs. An operational failure of the covert raid could have turned horribly wrong — but it didn’t.
Even President Obama’s phased withdrawal of American forces from Iraq has been relatively orderly. According to a senior Baghdad adviser, Iraq now averages between “zero and seven security incidents a day nationwide — compared with 180 per day four years ago.”
President Obama also deserves credit for foiling an alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador on American soil at a time when the Iranians have been unusually aggressive. For example, Iran is also believed to have sponsored the “murder of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in May.” The President’s timing in releasing the details of this plot also appears to have been very strategic, as the IAEA is about to publish a report this week detailing what many believe are Iran’s efforts to weaponize its nuclear program.
Many of the President’s national security victories will likely go unacknowledged. For instance, many speculate that the U.S. government may have been involved in unleashing the mysterious Stuxnet worm that potentially damaged or disabled a fifth to one half of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and delayed Iran’s nuclear weapons program for several years. If true, President Obama would have either had to initiate the program or acquiesced in its continuation from the Bush Administration.
That said, the long-term effects of President Obama’s policies remain to be seen. Many defense commentators, myself included, have warned that Obama’s actions against Qaddafi may have scuttled any future hope of convincing dictators to end their WMD programs voluntarily, and could eventually result in a Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation spiral. However, these long-term effects are nothing more than hypothetical today, and will likely remain so between now and election day. Until then, the President’s security record will remain an impressive one.