Executive Power

Brookings Paper on Terrorism and the Election

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 5:26 PM

My Brookings colleague Daniel Byman and I have a paper out on the Brookings web site on terrorism as an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. The paper is high-altitude and not chiefly about law. It is is part of a larger Brookings project, which I direct, on the critical issues the next president will face. The introduction opens as follows:

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.

The paper is accompanied by two response papers from other Brookings colleagues.  Stephen Grand wrote a response arguing should use the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring to demonstrate to a region suspicious of United States that it is a trustworthy partner. Rebecca Winthrop and Kevin Watkins argued that Byman and I are a little too enthusiastic about drones and that the United States must put addressing poverty at the center of the its wider national security agenda.