When Barack Obama took the oath of office three years ago, no one associated the phrase "targeted killing" with his optimistic young presidency. In his inaugural address, the 47-year-old former constitutional law professor uttered the word "terror" only once. Instead, he promised to use technology to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."
Oddly, technology has enabled Obama to become something few expected: a president who has dramatically expanded the executive branch's ability to wage high-tech clandestine war. With a determination that has surprised many, Obama has embraced the CIA, expanded its powers, and approved more targeted killings than any modern president. Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush. And after promising to make counterterrorism operations more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority.
Just as importantly, the administration's excessive use of drone attacks undercuts one of its most laudable policies: a promising new post-9/11 approach to the use of lethal American force, one of multilateralism, transparency, and narrow focus.
Obama's willingness to deploy lethal force should have come as no surprise. In a 2002 speech, Illinois state senator Obama opposed Bush's impending invasion of Iraq, but not all conflicts. "I don't oppose all wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war." And as president, in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama warned, "There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." Since then, he has not only sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, but also repeatedly approved commando raids in Pakistan and Somalia and on the high seas, while presiding over a system that unleashed hundreds of drone strikes.
In a series of recent interviews, current and former administration officials outlined what could be called an "Obama doctrine" on the use of force. Obama's embrace of multilateralism, drone strikes, and a light U.S. military presence in Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, they contend, has proved more effective than Bush's go-heavy approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We will use force unilaterally if necessary against direct threats to the United States," Ben Rhodes, the administration's deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told me. "And we'll use force in a very precise way."
Crises the administration deems indirect threats to the United States -- such as the uprisings in Libya and Syria -- are "threats to global security," Rhodes argued, and will be responded to multilaterally and not necessarily by force. The drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the creation of a smaller, more agile U.S. military spread across Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, are also part of the doctrine. So is the discreet backing of protesters in Egypt, Iran, and Syria.
The emerging strategy -- which Rhodes touted as "a far more focused approach to our adversaries" -- is a welcome shift from the martial policies and bellicose rhetoric of both the Bush administration and today's Republican presidential candidates. But Obama has granted the CIA far too much leeway in carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. In both countries, the strikes often appear to be backfiring.