The Magazine

Obama’s Way of War

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Is Barack Obama a warrior president? Not in the British tradition, of course, which gave us Winston Churchill, with his crazy cavalry charge against Sudanese spears, or the more cerebral Harold Macmillan, shot to pieces in World War I, lying in the blood and the mud reading Aeschylus. Obama is a post-Vietnam president: He walks in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who took different paths away from the jungles of Southeast Asia but later sent Americans into harm’s way in foreign wars. He is—if we are to believe his campaign ads, his vice presi-dent, and a recent breathless encomium in the New York Times—a commander in chief more in line with “Teddy Roosevelt than Jimmy Carter.” He is a “gutsy” guy, who has “embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink.” 

Photo of Obama speaking to members of the military

A warrior president? No, a dove with drones.

AP IMAGES / Charles Dharapak

Politically, it’s common and fair for an American presi-dent seeking reelection to accentuate his manly qualities. Most Democrats to the right of the editors at Mother Jones—and that is still most Democrats—don’t want to elect a wimp. Modern democracies understandably don’t demand that their leaders come from military backgrounds, let alone have shown valor in battle. So we use a different standard to assess their martial toughness. President Obama, his minions, and his admirers have loudly told us he stakes his claim on two accomplishments: the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the aggressive use of drones against jihadists. So let’s look. 

The last two presidents, in fact, have used Predators to kill our enemies. For going after Muslim holy warriors in geographically challenging regions of the Greater Middle East, remote-controlled aircraft are militarily and politically safer and more economical than sending in special-operations teams. Early on, the Bush administration accelerated the development of drones because they were an immediately useful part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s technology-driven transformation of the armed forces. Still, for the Bush administration to trumpet Predators as a sign of the president’s warrior ethos would have seemed surreal, given his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It also would have appeared unseemly, when Rumsfeld’s high-tech doctrine fared poorly against insurgencies that demanded more troops than the secretary had deemed necessary. 

In theory, killer drones are almost a liberal’s fighting dream-machine: no dead Americans (unless they are the targets), no captured U.S. soldiers, no wounded to transport home, no crashing helicopters, a minimum of soul-tormenting reflection, no blood or gore on TV or in print, and limited collateral damage. Perhaps best of all, because of drones’ stealth, cooperating Muslim governments can deny their complicity with the infidel superpower. True, some leftists have risen to question the ethics of drone use (if terrorism should be treated as a crime, which is sometimes the view of the Obama administration, then killing folks without trial or judicial review, remotely and clandestinely, is wrong). But most American liberals have approved or kept their reservations quiet. Killing jihadists overseas is apparently more moral than putting them alive into Guantánamo Bay. 

If we look down the road, Predators will likely be an essential part of the foreign policy of any liberal president ambivalent about the use of American power. Given President Obama’s near-total silence about the impending sequestration of nearly $600 billion in military spending because of a budget impasse (half the cuts will come from defense, which accounts for less than one-quarter of the budget) on top of the $800 billion already axed, the president obviously sees spending on defense as less necessary to the nation’s health than maintaining the entitlement status quo and implementing Obamacare. Drones sustain the illusion that you can do more with less, that jihadists and their organizations can be sufficiently neutralized without contemplating more troops or aerial bombardments. 

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