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The Obama Way of War

To the rear, march!

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

The setup artfully combines military and CIA assets to maximize operational effectiveness and mask the size and scope of the effort. Strikes are “increasingly assembled à la carte,” reports Miller, “piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”

The article’s account of the September 30 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki reveals the intricacy of this “toggling” campaign. As the CIA went hunting the American-born cleric whose Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula organization in Yemen had sponsored a number of attempted terrorist attacks, including that by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009, it assembled a fleet of its own Predator and Reaper drones reinforced by those of the Joint Special Operations Command. So seamless was the Awlaki strike that it remains unclear whether a CIA or JSOC aircraft actually delivered the lethal missile, though the administration justified the killing under CIA legal authority. When Awlaki’s son was similarly killed two weeks later, however, it was done under authority granted to the Defense Department by post-9/11 legislation.

While the administration’s toggling legal posture has provoked criticism from both the liberal left and the libertarian right, Obama’s use of drones is generally praised. “What this does is it takes a lot of Americans out of harm’s way .  .  . without having to send in a special ops team or drop a 500-pound bomb,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Select Committee on Intelligence. The Bush administration had increasingly employed drones, conducting about 44 strikes in Pakistan and killing as many as 300 Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, according to the New America Foundation. But the Obama administration has become positively addicted to the drone war, having conducted nearly 250 strikes and widening operations to Yemen, Somalia, and surveillance of Iran, as the recent crash there of the larger and more sophisticated RQ-170 Sentinel indicates.

Obama’s successes—most spectacularly, the killing of Osama bin Laden—have given him great leeway to continue and expand the silent war, even among liberals looking for an alternative to out-and-out weakness. “Why do I approve of all this?” Roger Cohen asked himself.

Because the alternative—the immense cost in blood and treasure and reputation of the Bush administration’s war on terror—was so appalling. In just the same way, the results of a conventional bombing war against Iran would be appalling whether undertaken by Israel, the United States or a combination of the two.

Andrew Cummings of the Guardian seconds Cohen’s loud cheers for silent war when it comes to Iran. While allowing that a “covert campaign” would be “rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, [it] is the lesser of many evils.” Because he acknowledges that sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons, but finds a real war equally unappetizing, Cummings hopes that silent war will encourage Iran to reopen the “dialogue” on its nuke program. “Covert action creates the time and space for pressure to build, while”—presto!—“reducing the need for military action.”

Even the occasionally sensible David Ignatius of the Washington Post can go ga-ga for drones. After the Awlaki killing, he saw a “hint of deterrence” in the Obama way of war. Especially praiseworthy is that the drone war “recognizes the need for limits”:

We don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone. And there’s something important in the hint of a deterrence strategy: This is how wars end in the part of the world where al Qaeda arose—through a balance of mutual restraint that makes a de facto truce possible, even between the most bitter enemies.

The Asia pivot

The corollary to walking softly and carrying a silent stick in the greater Middle East is the equally bally-hooed strategic “pivot” to Asia—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term—that’s been a centerpiece of Obama administration rhetoric for the past six months. Prefacing his new “defense guidance,” the “first Pacific president” declared that “as we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.”

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