That Which Obama Is, He Is

By Kurt Schmidlein

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”  

   —President Bush, September 20th, 2001

Like many my age, my path to political awareness began in the aftermath of 9/11. My generation spent its adolescence against a backdrop of a mismanaged war in Afghanistan and an unjustifiable war in Iraq. Like so many others, I was convinced that the hegemony that the U.S. inherited with the fall of the Berlin Wall had been squandered by a recklessly broad “War on Terror.”

In the fall of 2007 I began volunteering for Barack Obama because I thought he could restore our standing in the world, specifically by ending the perpetual global war that Bush had started. I was knocking on doors and calling voters and driving people to the polls because, in my mind, President Bush’s “War on Terror” was not a war, but rather a lawless perpetual crusade that was breeding more terrorism than it was destroying.

“[Earlier generations] understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

—President Obama, January 20th, 2009

In his first inaugural address, President Obama said the U.S. would “begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” a line which I, and much of the country, greeted with enthusiasm. In the two years following his inauguration, he turned the long term strategic attention of the United State to the western rim of the Pacific Ocean and attempted a “New Start” with a resurgent Russia while also pivoting short term focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, after all, was still nowhere to be found, and al-Qaeda was once again on the rise.

For just as President Obama was left an historic economic crisis to address, so too were there many loose ends in President Bush’s “War on Terror.” But rather than departing from the Bush doctrine, President Obama simply extended it.  During Obama’s tenure so far, the rate of drone strikes has accelerated rapidly (especially in Pakistan). These strikes have often been accompanied by the same legal hokus pokus that the Bush administration used to justify Guantanamo, black sites, and torture. A prime example of such justifications is the unsigned and undated memo which justified the 2010 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. As in the case of Guantanamo, the costs of the methods outweighed the gains. Teju Cole articulated those costs best in his New Yorker piece, “A Reader’s War”:

“What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them?” We do know what they think: many of them have the normal human reaction to grief and injustice, and some of them take that reaction to a vengeful and murderous extreme. In the Arabian peninsula, East Africa, and Pakistan, thanks to the policies of Obama and Biden, we are acquiring more of the angriest young enemies money can buy.

While canvassing for Obama in 2008, I argued over and over that the antics of Bush and Cheney, horrors like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, had created more terrorists than we had managed to kill. By 2012, Democrats and Republicans, and a great quantity of commentators, were convinced that Obama was doing the same.

 “Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they’re individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No! Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque! It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle.”

   —M, Skyfall, 2012

A few days after President Obama’s reelection in November 2012, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise was released. At one point in the movie, M—director of MI6 and mentor to Bond—is forced to defend her department and its relevance in front of a skeptical committee. At the end of her testimony, M quotes Tennyson’s Ulysses:

   We are not now that strength which in old days

   Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

   One equal temper of heroic hearts,

   Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

   To strive, to seek, to find,

   And not to yield.

Of course, M is referencing the arc of Britain’s power through history—that, given its current place in the global balance of power, it must rely on some unconventional and covert means to protect its interests. Indeed, the world stage is becoming more crowded as emerging powers push against the old order, and old powers struggle to stay relevant. It is on this new world stage that Obama’s covert drone war must be analyzed.

As in the case of Skyfall’s Britain, President Obama is now directing military forces in a world where earth and heaven cannot be moved by America alone. So, with the help of Great Britain, Obama has tracked down much of al-Qaeda’s network with Predators and Reapers mounted with Hellfire missiles. But when we stop and look at the locations of most U.S. drone strikes—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen—we see that Obama has avoided countries with any meaningful geopolitical clout. No doubt, there are terrorist cells in those countries as well, but again we see that America’s reach is not that which it once was. For example, lately the drone war has accelerated in Yemen, where al-Qaeda has, in President Obama’s words, “metastasized” into a local threat. Had that threat “metastasized” in a state with more influence, such Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, then a drone war—or a war of any sort—would not be feasible.

But identifying a full and coherent rationale for Obama’s adoption of drone warfare as a primary tool in the War on Terror is difficult. There is certainly a bit of cognitive dissonance when we think of the man who espoused “Hope” sitting in a room in the White House, as he does every “Terror Tuesday,” looking at a list of militants and deciding whom to kill. It would seem that the timing of his tenure—the age of the sequester, record-high deficits, and little political consensus— has made unmanned aircraft the best and cheapest weapon for fulfilling his promise of bringing the fight back to al-Qaeda. The question is whether we are to believe that that the administration “always” prefers to capture terrorists, rather than kill them, as they so often assure us.

This is, in theory at least, a credible argument; drone warfare has undeniable costs, and the administration is well aware of these costs. Obama has made the shrewd bet that his drone war will not bear geopolitical costs if the collateral damage is contained to failed states (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and a state with practically zero geopolitical clout (Yemen). A drone strike in, say, Saudi Arabia, or Germany, is completely unthinkable, which is exactly the point. A calculation has been made, the costs have been taken into account, and it has been decided that drones are worth it. It is also very tempting to conclude that Obama simply has a predilection for drones.  But that, of course, isn’t the whole story. Unfortunately, the whole story is unavailable to the public, since the details of drone operations are kept classified.

 President Obama promised to destroy al-Qaeda, and yet it has come as a surprise to myself and many others that he chose a method that would leave so many civilians dead. Now, he strikes me as a man fully aware that the collateral damage from his clandestine war begets more clandestine war against the West. Apparently Obama trusted himself, but not others, to use drones to kill members of al-Qaeda: his administration developed certain criteria in order to limit Mitt Romney’s ability to continue the drone war had Obama lost his reelection bid. Call it hubris, call it partisanship, call it whatever you want, but Barack Obama clearly knows how dangerous his drone war has become.

Obama’s May 24th counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University may well have been the beginning of a course correction—if in rhetoric only. He began to roll back the paradigm which has informed American foreign policy since 9/11: that morals and laws and collateral damage do not matter when confronting our enemies.

“And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power— or risk abusing it.”

Strange and disconcerting words, given Obama’s track record. But later in the speech, Obama began to address the framework that made his actions possible in the first place: the Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF).

“I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Drone strikes, however, have continued unabated since Obama spoke those words.As candidates begin to think about the 2016 presidential election,  one can’t help but wonder whether the foreign policy of the next president will move beyond of the Bush-Obama spectrum of anti-terror policy. It seems unlikely that it will, since at this point the only foreign policy alternative is the school of Rand Paul. But, with any luck, a new candidate will emerge,  who will ask the pressing questions. Do targeted killings and signature strikes make us safer or beget more terrorism? Do we want to forever operate in the shadows that M described in Skyfall, or do we want to use our power against states, against sovereign powers, just as we too wish to be treated as a sovereign nation?

I want a president who will use the hegemony inherited wisely, cautiously, and fully aware that “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven,” that we have been made weaker by the inevitable rise of other states. But the next president must also know that fate and time alone do not define us: “that which we are” is also what we choose to be.

(Photo Credit: Jason Reed/Reuters)

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One comment

  1. Great article, with many acute observations. I think your assessment that the president’s reliance on drones may stem from a need to deliver on his promises (which, in other areas, is more difficult to do) makes a lot of sense. I hope that his quote about questioning the morality of military tactics is indeed evidence of a shift… but, of course, actions speak louder than words.

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