Obama’s Missing Bravado

Obama has nearly decimated al Qaeda. Why doesn’t he brag about it? Michael Tomasky on liberals’ squeamishness at thumping their chests—and the endless victory lap that Bush would have taken.

09.30.11 3:37 PM ET

The immediate political question raised by the successful drone attack that took out Anwar al-Awlaki is simple. How much credit will Barack Obama get for this? He ordered renewed drone attacks in Yemen earlier this year, and now, we see clear results. But I doubt Obama will derive much political benefit, for one obvious reason and one reason that is less obvious but that reflects something more enduring in our political culture.

When that SEAL team nailed Osama bin Laden, Obama got about a five-point bounce out of it, but it washed away as quickly as a wave on a beach. The conventional wisdom said, well, it’s the economy. People are more concerned about the unemployment rate. It also happened as the debt-ceiling crisis was starting to build, and Washington was more obsessed with it. So the conventional wisdom wasn’t necessarily wrong.

But it also wasn’t the whole story. The fuller explanation reflects differences in the emotional and psychological make-up of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are far more eager to thump their chests about these things. Liberals, from Obama to Hillary Clinton to the liberal foreign-policy gurus at the think tanks to your average person, find it a little unseemly.

Who's left in Al Qaeda

Imagine if the Bush administration had killed bin Laden, under circumstances as daring as the ones under which he actually was put on ice by the Obama administration. Imagine what that week would have been like. On Fox News, we’d have been subjected to endless Soviet-style encomia to our heroic leader. What would the administration itself have done? I’ll concede the 10 or 15 percent chance they’d have surprised us and played it humbly. But in all likelihood, Bush and Cheney and Rummy and Condi would have dashed around the country making speeches at martial events, alternated (of course) with bathetic public ceremonies in the presence of some of the very 9/11 widows whom the Bushies, in other moments, aspersed for wanting things like an honest commission investigation into how 9/11 happened in the first place.

Obama didn’t do it. He held the press conference the night it happened. He quietly and tastefully—and wordlessly—laid a wreath at Ground Zero. He did give one speech, in Kentucky, but even that speech had very little of the gladiatorial sparkle of Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” orgy. Obama met with members of SEAL Team Six, but he did so privately, and the White House released few details of the meeting. More generally, the Obama administration has decimated al Qaeda in Iraq and Pakistan over the last three years. All the high-profile killings make news of course, and sometimes big news, but I can’t shake the feeling that if the Bush team had managed all these high-profile killings, Americans would be more familiar with the litany.

There are two differences, I think, between liberals and conservatives when it comes to this sort of thing. The first is that the Democrats still believe that there are a few things that shouldn’t be politicized, while Karl Rove and his crowd thought absolutely everything should be. But there’s a more enduring difference than that. It’s about America’s role in the world and how it should exercise its power, and it goes back to the Cold War. Liberal Cold Warriors considered the dirty work of foreign policy a sad but unavoidable burden that history had placed on America’s shoulders. Conservative Cold Warriors as a group were more gung-ho and had no patience for that sort of temporizing.

This isn’t to say that liberals were right about everything and conservatives wrong—both were wrong, for example, about the need to defeat Ho Chi Minh. But there were indeed cases in which the liberal urge for restraint, I think we would agree, paid off: If conservatives of 1952-53 had had their way, for example, we’d probably have nuked North Korea and started a war with China. If you want to get highfalutin about it, a lot of this goes back to Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading liberal foreign-policy intellectual of his time, and a man Obama has openly revered.

So liberals don’t generally gloat about these things. It may cost Obama a few points in the opinion polls. But it’s the more honorable course for the country. We should go get these people, but we should be humble about it.