It's time to think legacy. For the last four years, President Obama has had plenty of reasons to pull his punches: at first, he was a new and inexperienced president, relatively unversed in how to make Congress and the executive branch work, and he mostly avoided going out on limbs. Then it was time to start campaigning again, making him risk-averse for a different reason.
But Obama eked out a narrow victory on Tuesday -- narrow partly for reasons beyond his control (the ongoing global recession, for instance), but partly because the Democratic base was far less energized this time around. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised transformative politics, and millions of Americans believed he could deliver. After four years characterized mostly by centrism and half-measures, voters this year were distinctly less enthusiastic. This time around, no one expects transformation.
But paradoxically, President Obama is in many ways better positioned to deliver transformation now than he was in those heady days of early 2009. He's not a newbie anymore: his first-term struggles provided important lessons on everything from how to work with Congress to how to staff and structure his White House team. And just as important, Obama doesn't have to run for office again. He can -- and should -- devote his second term to building a legacy of which he can be proud.
Here are six foreign policy areas where he should focus his energies this time around.
1. Break away from the "all terrorism all the time" approach to national security -- and specifically, impose some strategic discipline on drone strikes.
Obama came into office in 2008 a critic of the expansive "global war on terror" paradigm, which seemed to promise limitless war against a limitless and undefined set of enemies. But despite early efforts to disaggregate the terrorist threat, replacing the GWOT with a seemingly narrower war on al Qaeda and its associates, the Obama administration has in many ways expanded the war on terror. America's use of drone strikes and other targeted killings has increased dramatically, moving far beyond "hot battlefields" to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and perhaps Mali and the Philippines as well. What's more, strikes seem to be targeting an ever-widening group of people: we're no longer just taking out terrorist masterminds who pose direct, imminent, and grave threats to the United States. Instead, we seem to have fallen into a common trap: we have a nifty tool, and we want to use it, so we're using it more and more, for less and less reason. We're going after suspects further and further down the terrorist food chain, who pose ever more attenuated threats.
As I've written in previous columns, these targeted killings raise serious rule of law concerns. They also raise serious strategic concerns. First, rule of law lapses have reputational costs, weakening our credibility with allies and enabling imitative behavior by unscrupulous regimes around the globe. Second, increasingly indiscriminate killings (or killings that appear indiscriminate) may well increase, rather than decrease, extremism and anti-American sentiment, increasing long-term security risks. Third, our fixation on taking out terrorists has real opportunity costs: every dollar and man-hour spent on hunting down mid-level al Qaeda sympathizers in Pakistan or Somalia is money and time that could be spent on dealing with other threats. Freed from the first-term need to pander to the electorate's most paranoid fears, Obama should undertake a rigorous and pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of U.S. counterterrorism programs.