The Global War on Terror (GWOT) is alive and well. While the legitimate conflict against Al-Qaeda morphed into the abstract GWOT on President George W. Bush’s watch, President Obama has taken steps to ensure that this conflict is one that perpetuates and persists indefinitely.
Compare the steps taken by the previous president. Following the stunning attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush quickly adopted an approach, pre-emptive war, against not only Al-Qaeda but also “terror” and states that opposed “freedom” (or American global hegemony). What distinguished this approach from past American foreign policy endeavors was how inherently costly it was. Consider its two defining features: 1). it relied heavily on large-scale troop-intensive military campaigns against non-state actors, while 2). simultaneously adopting a state-centric model regarding these military campaigns.
The true aims of this approach were made immediately apparent after the initial campaign to oust the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001; three states, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, none of which had any operational ties to Al-Qaeda, were marked out for direct U.S. confrontation.
By framing the GWOT in these terms, the Bush administration committed to fighting 21st Century “terror” in 20th Century terms: extended and costly military campaigns with the aim of creating new Germanys, Japans and South Koreas in the heart of the Islamic world.
Now compare this approach with that of our current president. To his credit, Obama was quick to identify Al-Qaeda, and only Al-Qaeda, as the terrorist enemy with which the U.S. was rightfully at "war" with. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the Obama administration (rightly) saw fit to discard the inherently ambiguous GWOT label altogether.
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has adopted a light footprint approach that emphasizes the use of low-cost assets, such as drones (against Al-Qaeda terrorists) and cyber-warfare (against states), while steering clear of extended military campaigns with significant ground troops.
This specificity did not preclude a willingness on the part of Obama to use significant military force against non-Al-Qaeda targets. In 2009, Obama escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to suppress a Taliban-led insurgency while, in 2011, he ordered sea-based air strikes against Libya in order to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power. However, this level of intensive military escalation has been the exception, not the rule.
Judging from the style, actions and approach of these two presidents, it would seem that the present trajectory of the GWOT is one of some ill-defined conclusion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two reasons for this. First, by winding down America’s costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and replacing them with the low-cost warfare of drones and cyber-weapons, Obama has removed the biggest obstacle to the perpetuation of the GWOT: the public’s aversion to high-cost military campaigns. By vastly reducing the exposure of American blood and treasure to foreign conflict, Obama has all but removed the political risk inherent in intervening military abroad.
Skeptics of this claim need only to compare the pace of interventions made abroad under Obama, versus those made under Bush, to see the strength of this argument. Whereas Bush’s interventions were relegated to the Afghanistan and Iraq combat theaters, Obama’s interventions include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Iran.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, Obama’s adoption of these low-cost tools has exasperated the most pressing issue of the GWOT; the extent to which the executive branch is not accountable to the rule of law. Whereas the deployment of traditional military force is regulated and subjected to the rule of law, the use of drones and cyber-weapons is currently not.
This reality has only just begun to set in on lawmakers and public alike. Earlier this week, when confronted by Senator Rand Paul on the issue of whether or not an American citizen on American soil could be assassinated via a drone strike, Attorney General Eric Holder initially left the possibility open before responding soon after in the negative.
To be sure, drones and cyber-weapons, like guns and tanks, have a legitimate role to play in ensuring our national security. That is not the issue. The issue is the extent to which these specific weapons, and perhaps others, can operate outside the rule of law. While Holder dismissed the likelihood of the administration’s use of drones against Americans in the U.S., he again left the possibility open should that American be deemed to be “engaged in combat on American soil,” or in other words an "enemy combatant." And who gets to decide who is labeled an enemy combatant? The answer is the executive.
By utilizing the weapons of assassination, while simultaneously reserving the exclusive right of designating an individual an "enemy combatant" and a given place a "combat zone," President Obama has unwittingly cemented the groundwork for permanent war.
I do not believe this was his intention; nor do I believe this was the intention of his predecessor. There is reason to think President Obama will ensure that this legal netherworld will be made right before he leaves office. Until then, he must be judged by the totality of his actions and not his words.