WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's not-so-secret counter-terrorism fight against Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, the killing of Osama bin Laden and strong hints of a cyber-war against Iran give Republicans few openings to challenge the commander in chief on national security.
This aggressive national security policy has undercut the derisive label Republicans have successfully attached to Democrats in the past: the soft-on-defense Mommy Party. It has been one of the most effective election-year cudgels for the Republican Party.
Just eight years ago, President George W. Bush capitalized on his tough response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Iraq's Saddam Hussein to win a second term. In a major assist to Bush's candidacy, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used debunked claims to undermine Democratic rival John Kerry's decorated Vietnam War record and cast him as "unfit to serve."
Obama, however, gets high marks In public opinion polls for his record on national security. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in May found that 64 percent approved of Obama's handling of terrorism and 53 percent approved of the way he's managing the situation in Afghanistan. By contrast, less than half approved of his handling of the economy (46 percent), unemployment (48 percent) or gas prices (30 percent).
In the past 3 years, Obama has waged a secret campaign against Al-Qaeda in two countries - one on the Arab peninsula, the other on Africa's east coast. The White House officially acknowledged the lethal attacks in Yemen and Somalia in its semiannual report to Congress last Friday. Navy SEALs took out bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 while armed drones have pursued Al-Qaeda terrorists within the country, degrading the terrorist group.
Republicans, who have successfully pummeled Obama on the economy ahead of the November presidential election, have made little headway on national security.
"There's nothing like success to quell criticism," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat. "I think the fact that there have been some successes, ranging from spectacular, Osama bin Laden, to the utter decapitation of Al-Qaeda to the disruption of violent insurgencies in Yemen, Somalia ... western parts of Pakistan has done much to quiet some of that criticism. ... I think the Republicans are very hard-pressed to criticize that aspect of the president's foreign policy."
That hasn't stopped Republicans from fixating on what they describe as major weaknesses in Obama's national security policy. Leaks of classified information, including reports of a computer attack that has infected Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, led Republicans to demand the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate. Republicans argue that the leaks were politically driven to help Obama and have jeopardized national security.
Democrats and the administration have rejected those demands. Attorney General Eric Holder instead has appointed U.S. Attorneys Ron Machen and Rod Rosenstein to oversee the investigation into who leaked information about U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran and an Al-Qaeda plot to place an explosive device aboard a U.S.-bound flight.
"Considering how closely in time these items were published and how favorable of an impression they left about the president's approach to national security, it is not unreasonable to ask whether these leaks were part of a broader effort to paint President Obama, in the midst of an election year, as a strong leader on national security issues," Sen. John McCain, Obama's 2008 presidential rival, said Tuesday in a blistering Senate floor speech.
McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has called the leaks "almost unprecedented" and insisted last week that he couldn't think of "any time that I have seen such breaches of ongoing national security programs as has been the case here."
Sen. Roy Blunt, also a Republican, told reporters Tuesday that the leaks "create a lack of confidence on the part of people around the world" who are cooperating with the United States.
Hardly, say Democrats.
Kerry, a Democrat, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Republicans are "flailing around desperately trying to get some kind of handle, constantly trying to discredit the president, which doesn't serve our foreign policy or our national security."
Outside experts say the Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted leaks of classified information, charging six people under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information. Most notably is the case of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified government documents, sending them to the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks.
Despite Obama's strong standing on national security, Republicans have been ferocious in challenging his foreign policy, accusing him of being wobbly in his support for Israel, uncertain as Syrians are slaughtered and lacking toughness as Iran pushes its nuclear program. They've criticized deficit-driven cuts in the military even though they agreed to them last year. They've suggested he cut a secret deal with Russia that would undermine missile defense, an agreement that will emerge after the election.