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Obama’s Hands-On Role in Counterterrorism Operations

by Collin Smith | Swarthmore College

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: May 31, 2012
Collin Smith Collin Smith

The Obama administration’s hard-line approach toward the conflict previously known as the War on Terror has slowly been coming to light, but this week the New York Times published an in-depth article that revealed President Obama’s surprisingly hands-on role in the process. What the article showed the American people was a president who is intimately involved in the discussions on who to target, who presides over a secret “kill list” and orders drone strikes in neutral countries, and who ultimately pulls the trigger in any controversial decision the military must make. It’s a picture of a president very different than the one the public saw during the 2008 presidential campaign, showing a pragmatic (some might say brutal) attitude towards counterterrorism is now released for all to see.

Identifying moral justification for counterterrorism measures like drone strikes is tricky and ultimately devolves into a modern-day chicken-and-egg scenario. On the one hand, drone strikes are a more precise method of targeting terrorist operatives than sending in U.S. troops (not to mention a vast improvement over the previous administration’s strategy of dismantling and then attempting to rebuild a nation largely unrelated to the actual terrorist organizations we’re fighting). On the other hand, if another nation were sending unmanned killing machines to take out targets in the U.S., every level of American society (including those who support drone strikes) would decry it as an unforgivable breach of America’s sovereignty.

On the other hand, not many nations are facing a multinational terrorist organization plotting large-scale attacks on its home territory.

On the other hand, the major motivation for that terrorist organization is America’s willingness to impose its influence on other nations in blatant disregard of their national sovereignty.


What struck me most about the article, however, was Obama’s decision to have himself serve as the ultimate decision maker in these morally ambiguous situations. Realizing that the process of identifying who to target and when to target them is not an exact science, Obama ordered that in any situations where there’s a possibility of collateral damage, he would be the one to give the green light. It’s a prudent decision, as any such situation could easily cause a diplomatic or military backlash that would eventually make its way back up to the Oval Office. But it’s also an impressive decision for a president who could otherwise have deflected blame somewhat by pointing out that decisions were made without his knowledge. Now, any counterterrorism operation gone awry bears Obama’s direct and indisputable stamp of approval.

Mitt Romney once said that Obama’s counterterrorism approach had a “Nixon to China” element. By this he meant that only a president who has been repeatedly accused of being soft on terrorism could get away with adopting such a hard-line policy. However, Obama’s insistence on making the final call also makes the approach, in some respects, decidedly un-Nixon-like. There will be no Watergate-style defense where Obama can claim that those working on his behalf were doing so without his knowledge or consent. Obama’s approach actually invokes the guiding principle of another past U.S. president: Harry S. Truman’s famous “The Buck Stops Here” pledge. By making the tough calls, Obama is ensuring that any question of accountability will ultimately end with him.

And “tough calls” is a massive understatement. In the muddy moral and legal territory that defines counterterrorism operations, there’s rarely any guidelines or precedents to use as a foundation or precedent. In one decision, Obama ordered a strike that killed not only the target but also his wife and other family members. In another, he had to decide whether to target operatives who were only 17 years old, barely old enough to be out of high school. In another, Obama made the decision that “internal deliberations within the executive branch” could satisfy the Fifth Amendment right of due process and allow Obama to target an American citizen operating abroad (I’m still not sure how I feel about that last one).

What concerned me most about the article, even beyond these and other morally questionable actions (and there are many. Seriously, read the article), was the intimation that the administration is beginning to focus on targeted killings at the expense of developing a broader counterterrorism strategy. Precision drone strikes are a useful tool for taking out high-profile members of Al Qaeda, but they’re not an ultimate solution. To actually stop the organization, the U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive plan to alienate it from the Middle Eastern society and eliminate its ability to expand. Targeted killings treat the symptoms of the issue but not the underlying cause.

These two courses of action (drones vs. broader strategy) are difficult to combine and actually conflict with each other in a number of ways. I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to figure out how to do it, and I doubt Obama does either. But at least the president has stepped up as the one who holds final responsibility, both for his policy’s successes and failures. And ultimately, that’s what a Commander-in-Chief is supposed to do.

Collin Smith Collin Smith Collin Smith is a student at Swarthmore College and a Sports & Culture Editor for NextGen Journal.

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