Barack Obama used U.S. air power to prevent a massacre and facilitate the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. He sent a team of Navy SEALS to conduct a secret surgical strike in Pakistan that took out Osama bin Laden, America’s public enemy number one. He sent a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles to assassinate an American citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, whose extremist preaching was linked to several attempted terrorist attacks against the U.S. All three objectives were achieved without invasion, occupation, or the loss of American lives.
The last decade was dominated by the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” display of U.S. military might, a swagger that descended into a “long war” of occupation and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq that left thousands of Americans dead and wounded, and cost upward of a trillion dollars. But cold, calculating and nimble, Obama has turned a new page on the projection of American power. His emphasis on technology, intelligence, and leaning on allies is leaving a smaller and less costly U.S. military footprint on the globe, but one that is proving to be just as lethal to its adversaries.
In his first days as President, Obama ordered interrogation techniques cleaned up and the prison at Guantánamo Bay to be closed within a year. Congress objected, and Guantánamo has remained open, but the President has added zero detainees to the inmate population. Indeed, he’s barely taken any prisoners—instead, he has presided over many more drone strikes against terrorist suspects than George W. Bush. He is not waterboarding enemy prisoners who have been removed from the battlefield; he is killing them where they stand. (The administration denies frequent accusations that it is killing militants when capturing them would have been feasible.)
Last week, Obama announced that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. The White House presented the move as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the war, despite the fact that the administration had pressed the Iraqi government to allow the troops to stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline that had been agreed to by Bush. When Iraq would not agree to immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers, Obama announced they were heading home. But Obama’s cutting the number of U.S. troops deployed abroad should not be confused with an end to U.S. interventionism. In October, with the Libya mission still under way, Obama ordered 100 U.S. combat troops into central Africa to train and assist four African nations in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the murderous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who has been indicted at The Hague for crimes against humanity.
The move once again had Obama’s signature approach: a specific target, a small U.S. military force, and reliance on American technology and expertise to enhance the capabilities of foreign local and allied forces. “If the Bush administration was—at least in the first term—about using ‘shock and awe’ power and trying to bend the will of the world with our unparalleled military force, and if the Powell doctrine was about employing maximum military force in a particular situation, then you could say the Obama administration’s use of force is about being precise and principled,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow in national security at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. Obama’s decision to give a defined end date for his troop ramp-up in Afghanistan is evidence of his dislike of open-ended military commitments and nation building, Katulis adds.
The approach is a new “Obama Doctrine,” argues David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Obama & Co. embrace the orthoscopic alternative to the open-heart surgery favored by the Bush team,” he wrote in a Foreign Policy magazine essay. “The Obama Doctrine prioritizes the use of intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and the leverage of teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals.”
The increasing overlap of intelligence and military functions was brought into focus when Obama appointed his CIA chief, Leon Panetta, to take over the Pentagon as defence secretary, and moved a top general, David Petraeus, to head up the CIA. The swap underscored one of the biggest changes in the evolving U.S. security apparatus: the CIA is now as much about covert paramilitary operations, like drone strikes, as it is about intelligence analysis, while the military is increasingly focused on clandestine missions by elite squads of special forces. While the convergence of the intelligence and military approach began under the Bush administration, it has accelerated under Obama, who has deployed military special forces and CIA operatives—often working together—to many corners of the globe, from Yemen to Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama has also deliberately set out to re-establish multilateral military co-operation. In the early stages of the Bush administration, multilateralism was much maligned in the U.S.—Republicans denigrated it as “asking for a permission slip” from other countries. “I think Obama has turned multilateralism on its head—he’s turned it into getting other countries to exercise their responsibilities,” says Katulis. But the benefits come with a cost that evokes the old “permission slip” critique: the support of Arab countries for the Libya mission—and the lack of enthusiasm for doing something similar elsewhere—made the difference between the U.S. going after Gadhafi, but refraining from intervening in other nations where pro-democracy demonstrators were being killed.
After the death of Gadhafi, Obama made the case that multilateralism had been vindicated. “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,” he declared. “We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
It remains to be seen how Obama’s national security strategy will fare over the long haul. The approach has attracted many skeptics.
Some of the criticism is political. Republicans, hoping to portray Obama as weak on national security as they head into the 2012 election, portray his approach in Libya of primarily playing a supporting role for NATO allies—dubbed “leading from behind”—as weakening America’s position in the world. “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” said Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in a foreign policy speech on Oct. 7. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.” Another Republican contender, Michele Bachmann, has also weighed in. “Obama’s policy of leading from behind is an outrage,” she said. Bachmann has repeatedly attacked Obama for committing U.S. air power to the Libya mission despite the lack of an “identifiable American vital interest”—and for pulling U.S. ground forces out of Iraq as scheduled.
Legal controversy surrounds another of Obama’s tactics, the use of drones, and whether these targeted killings away from the “hot” battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq amount to assassination. The new technology has quickly emerged as a central U.S. tactic, raising a myriad of new questions—from disputes about the number of civilian casualties that accompany the militant deaths, to questions about the process for adding names to a target list, and more forward-looking worries about what will happen as other countries inevitably acquire armed drones of their own. “We need a more political and philosophical debate over the use of drones,” says Katulis. “I think it’s amazing we are using this tool almost every day, in the absence of an overarching framework that discusses when might these campaigns be brought to an end. It could lead to this sort of war through robotics and technology.”
There are also diplomatic concerns. Obama’s own former director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, has publicly criticized the administration for overemphasizing drones in its strategy in Pakistan. The attacks anger a Pakistani public concerned about reports of civilian deaths, and are failing to achieve the kind of co-operation necessary with Pakistan to truly root out militants, Blair argues. “Al-Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans,” argued Blair in a New York Times op-ed. “Our dogged persistence with the drone campaign is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.”
But for all the debate it has stoked, it is unclear whether Obama’s approach adds up to a coherent military doctrine, as opposed to a set of ad hoc policies taken in response to individual circumstances.
“It would be a mistake to assume we have ushered in a new kind of warfare, as if letting others taking the lead and using drones and cruise missiles will always be the answer,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “If the administration believed there was an alternative to war, they would have pulled the 95,000 troops out of Afghanistan. You have to recognize that these new means of warfare have an important but limited applicability. Therefore the ‘Obama Doctrine,’ as such, applies to only a certain category of missions.”
It would also be a mistake to credit Obama for having the insight that drones were a good idea. The Pentagon long ago realized the potential, but the technology was still in its infancy in the early Bush years. The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 only a decade ago, and has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones in 2012, according to the New York Times. “The fact that you see so many new technologies on the battlefield, giving operations a longer reach, is merely a function of the opportunities offered by new technologies,” says retired U.S. Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs, a visiting professor of strategy and military operations at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Meigs does not see a new paradigm in Obama’s actions; he calls Obama’s approach merely “pragmatic and realistic.”
For all that, though, Obama’s decision to wind down the Iraq war—even before the pullout this December—freed up many drones to prowl skies elsewhere in search of militants. To that extent, his tactics—and not just technological evolution—have made a difference.
Obama has shown he can wield American hard power. But the real test for the commander-in-chief comes next, and it may depend more on the soft-power spheres of diplomacy and development aid. With Gadhafi gone, who will run Libya? After U.S. forces leave Iraq, what kind of society will be left in their wake? And can Obama achieve the kind of co-operation necessary from Pakistan to root out the militants, rather than picking them off with drone strikes? “This administration faces the back side of the campaign,” says Meigs. “This is a harder problem than the surge of emotion that leads us to go into Afghanistan to ‘make sure al-Qaeda can’t do that again.’ The problem is more abstract and harder to control. In some ways this is bigger.”