The White House hoped terror leader Anwar al-Awlaki's death last week by CIA drone would give the president a political boost. However, questions about the legality of the airstrike have overshadowed the event and put President Obama in a political bind.
The killing of al-Awlaki was good news to those who follow the terrorism threat closely. He was an important al Qaeda leader connected to most of the recent plots to attack the U.S. homeland. His demise isn't translating into a public-approval boost for Mr. Obama, though, because terrorism ranks in single digits in polls on national priorities, which are dominated by economic concerns. When Osama bin Laden was taken down in May, Mr. Obama got a 10-point approval bump, according to Gallup. This euphoria lasted a month before a long, cold summer set in. Between the end of May and the end of August, the president's approval slid 15 points into record low territory.
Democrats argue that in the long run, these terrorist killings will inoculate Mr. Obama from the traditional Republican argument that Democratic presidents are weak on defense. But there are limits to how loudly Mr. Obama can trumpet his terrorist body count because the image conflicts with his recent populist makeover. It doesn't help keep the anti-war crowd in the White House camp when the administration receives mild praise from leftist bete noir and former Vice President Dick Cheney for fighting the terror war using the techniques developed in the George W. Bush administration. As Mr. Cheney points out, the death-by-drone approach underscores fatal contradictions in the Obama administration's moral case. It cannot be simultaneously true that dumping a bucket of water on a terrorist is illegal and inhumane torture while raining Hellfire missiles on terrorists and whoever happens to be with them is noble and praiseworthy.
The White House has kept alive the nagging question of the legal basis of the al-Awlaki killing. The term "extralegal" has taken root in discussing the operation. It literally means beyond the law but is used because many are unwilling to describe this as an illegal act, a war crime or a high crime. The Justice Department reportedly wrote an advisory memo on the legality of targeting an American citizen with lethal force absent a trial or other due process, but the administration has kept the memo classified. Keeping the legal rationale secret amplifies the voices that argue that Mr. Obama assassinated an American citizen.
Al-Awlaki's killing stands in contrast to the obsessive White House drive to extend full constitutional rights to foreign-born terrorists. In July, the administration skirted the clear intent of Congress by indicting small-time Somali terrorist Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in a federal court simply to establish the precedent of federal terror trials. This is the troubling standing image of the terror war in the age of Obama: A foreign-born jihadist is given a Miranda warning by the FBI, while the CIA kills an American citizen without warning.
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