Obama talks tougher as elections draw near

Obama Talks Tougher as Elections Draw Nearer

"And make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel's qualitative military edge -- because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

-- President Obama addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, March 4, 2011.

"So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."

-- President Obama in his "Address to the Muslim World," Cairo, June 4, 2009.

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    Today, Attorney General Eric Holder will explain to a crowd at Northwestern University why it is legally acceptable for the federal government to kill American citizens overseas without trial if they are believed to be in league with foreign enemies.

    Holder, who won admiration on the left for his principled stands against the Bush administration's Global War on Terrorism policies, is now in the business of explaining the propriety of the extra-judicial killing of undesirables such as the New Mexican-born Anwar al Awlawki, a senior Al-Qaeda planner who in 2011 ended up on the wrong side of a predator drone's Hellfire missile in Yemen.

    Where the Bush team had pause about escalating drone wars in other nations, the new Obama policy is that the United States essentially has the power to kill, by remote control, anybody, anywhere.

    The great crusade for President Obama on the question of Bush terror policies was once the closure of the prisoner of war camp at Guantanamo Bay. Signing an executive order ordering the (eventual) closure of the "number-one recruitment tool" for al Qaeda was Obama's first act as president. Holder took up the task to inshore the inmates so they could be tried in U.S. civilian courts.

    That didn't happen. And now, the Obama Defense Department has added an impressive new soccer complex to the prison, complete with hamster tubes for the inmates to travel to the fields unescorted. While perhaps too luxurious for some hard-liners in Congress, the soccer fields are further evidence that Team Obama has no expectation of closing the "number-one recruitment tool" anytime soon.

    When Obama took office, his political team was working to get moderate leaders elected in Israel in hopes of blocking the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu from taking office. Obama once famously snubbed Netanyahu at the White House and, as recently as last year, was still telling Israel to trade its territory for promises of peace from the Palestinians.

    On Iran, Obama was once all about direct engagement, bringing the Iranians in as stakeholders in Afghanistan at the time of his second troop surge and giving the Tehran regime the benefit of the doubt when popular protests emerged in the summer of 2009.

    Now, Obama is delivering saber-rattling speeches at AIPAC and using cowboy talk about Iran that would have made George W. Bush blush: "I don't bluff." Dude.

    Team Obama casts this as the president's exercise of "smart power" – saying and doing the smart thing in a changeable global political sphere. But it looks mostly like Obama has succumbed to domestic political pressure to become more hawkish. Plus, with the situation in the Middle East so dire and his Afghan strategy in utter disarray, Obama could hardly stand pat on his initial foreign policy stances.

    Remember that "smart power," a Clintonian concept, originally was all about using civilian resources along with military resources to deepen alliances in the world's bad neighborhoods. Now, the civilian surge in Afghanistan is kaput and Obama is looking for the fastest way out of the country amid a mutiny within its government and military.

    The political question is whether Obama has made the right calculation. The formula is something like this: Independents + Jewish support > anti-war base.

    He's probably right, at least in part. As Republicans chase the same centrist votes, they will sound increasingly hawkish in a bid to make Obama look weak. That will help Obama with his 2008 coalition. He can say that while he hasn't been what he promised, he will be better than whomever the Republicans are offering up.

    The danger is this. Obama has never been much of a salesman when it comes to selling American power or American exceptionalism ("Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism ..."). While Republicans are almost guaranteed to overdo on the hawkish stuff, Obama, who has never clearly articulated his real vision for the world will look like a confused, contradictory leader. Nuance is good, but only up to a point.

    Events will determine whether Obama, with the help of Usama bin Laden's bloody tunic, can sell himself as the nimble colossus -- a president who uses American power, but isn't bound by it. If the Middle East is in flames and the U.S. is pinned down in Afghanistan, it will be a hard sell.

    Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.