The problem with the firmly partisan prism of the media through which most of American politics is dissected is that we lose the many nuances of our political realities. Complexities become distorted and disfigured as they are forcefully shoved into the binary classifications of party politics. Perhaps the most extreme example is the way foreign policy has almost disappeared in today’s political consciousness, not in the least because the Obama administration’s policies defy easy political branding. However, despite the media’s predisposition to ignore what happens outside of Wall Street and Main Street this election season, President Obama’s first term has been rather eventful on the foreign policy front. Looking back to 2002, a young Illinois senator gave a stirring speech at a Chicago rally against the Iraq War: “I don’t oppose all wars. … What I am opposed to is … a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
Obama’s speech advocated a policy of reason in which only necessary battles are fought. But how has his actual foreign policy compared? Within his first term, we’ve seen the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the intervention in Libya, and an ever-escalating campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The arguable success of his policies has left both his supporters and detractors baffled. How can one begin to categorize these actions into the normal partisan divides? Were these wars instigated by the necessities of office or an evolution of Obama’s own nuanced foreign policy positions? How do we deal with the contradiction of a president who ran successfully on an anti-war platform, but three and a half years into his term, turned out to be very good at war?
The contradictions begin with the young senator’s speech. Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, when such a view was still unpopular, defined him as a progressive politician. But what is a president to do when he inherits a war? For a campaign that ran on hopeful rhetoric, Team Obama has also been quick to emphasize the necessity of pragmatism. And now, all 41,000 US troops currently in Iraq will return home by December 31. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end,” Obama said somberly in his speech announcing the withdrawal. And the reactions to the announcement were almost silly in their predictability; the right decried Obama for being a weak leader while the Democrats praised another campaign promise fulfilled at an optimal time before the 2012 elections. But both sides rather spectacularly failed to acknowledge basic points about the withdrawal, making substantial omissions for the sake of a clean political narrative: that the withdrawal followed a binding agreement between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration, or that the Obama administration did its best to delay the agreed-upon date, or that the military went to monumental lengths to keep a residual presence in Iraq and was deterred only by the Iraqi government’s resistance to providing US soldiers with legal immunity, or that we’re leaving behind a considerable army of private defence contractors to guard our still-sizable diplomatic presence.
A more interesting upshot of this “pragmatism,” however, is represented by the administration’s escalation of the use of drone warfare. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains the Obama administration’s embrace of the drone, and small precision raids – like the one that killed Osama Bin Laden – as a decision engendered by “the lessons of the big wars.” The long timelines and the boots on the ground necessitated by the nation-building doctrine are especially unpalatable in the face of growing deficits and budgetary problems. Faced with the huge costs – both in lives of soldiers and the estimated $1 million annual cost of keeping each soldier abroad – predator drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become a cheaper and “safer” alternative to traditional warfare. It only takes about $5 billion to manage the US global airborne surveillance network, but that figure is growing. The Pentagon has already requested an additional $5 billion for the next year alone to accommodate more drones and UAVs. However, that is still pittance to the approximately $3.7 trillion sunk into Iraq and Afghanistan (according to a Brown University report released in September 2011).
Drone warfare is a detached form of fighting that helps insulate the American public even more from the suffering caused by our wars abroad. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “bulk” of the drone strikes approved by President Obama targets “groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.” The administration refuses to clarify what “being in association” with a terrorist group entails, or, for that matter, any of the legal principles underlying the use of drone strikes. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki exhibited the fine line between warfare and extrajudicial homicide. It was never explained how a minor al-Qaeda figure presented a unique and extraordinary threat to national security, or why Awlaki’s 16 year-old son – also a US citizen – and his 17 year-old cousin merited death by drone strikes as well. American supporters of drone strikes have to consider just what they are supporting: the implicit authority for a president to covertly target and execute other citizens.
The number of civilian deaths from these attacks is vehemently disputed, with President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan asserting that there have been zero collateral deaths from drones. But drone warfare perpetuates its own rationalizations; only terrorists are targeted and, therefore, anyone killed in drone strikes must be a terrorist. But it is pure ignorance and blind faith to believe that our government is able to target none other than the “right” people. International human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith recounts his meeting with Pashtun tribal leaders in Islamabad to discuss the drone attacks; assertions that no civilians have been killed by the drones were “met with snorts of derision.” Villagers spoke of drones circling their homes and Hellfire missiles from the sky that prompted Smith to ask for physical evidence. A 16-year-old boy named Tariq Aziz became that evidence; three days later, he and his 12-year old cousin Waheed were killed in a CIA drone strike while picking up an aunt. Their deaths brought the total number of children killed in drone strikes to 175, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Stories like Aziz’s illustrate how easily allies become enemies. In Pakistan, the specter of the drones provides the Taliban with an effective recruitment tool without having to spend any extra effort. Resentment also runs deep in other nations subject to drone attacks, such as Yemen and Somalia. The Bush Doctrine’s grandiose ‘shock and awe’ style of intervention proved to be deeply unpopular around the world and at home, but as the United States expands its reliance on covert operations, the repercussions of this cold and indiscriminate form of warfare have begun to create another generation of enemies.
While the above examples are arguably engagements inherited from the previous administration, the Libyan intervention was the most prominent military action initiated by the current one. It was supposedly a CIA-controlled predator drone that destroyed the convoy of cars Muammar Qaddafi was using to escape the siege of Sirte, and ultimately aided in his capture and execution. Regardless of what Republican leaders might say, the policies of the Obama administration were absolutely vital in the deposition of Qaddafi.
Libya has become the sandbox for the development of Obama’s foreign policy. Contrast the Obama who made the call on Libya to the Obama from two years earlier when, according to writer Michael Hastings, the military had taken advantage of the President’s inexperience to gain approval for a troop surge in Afghanistan. Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya went against the position of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. At the outset, the administration was careful to continue mentioning regime change and tried its best to maintain the position of a desire to protect civilians. It was clear from the start, though, that the intervention would not end until Qaddafi was gone.
But was the Libyan intervention was driven primarily by the significant humanitarian faction in Obama’s cabinet, including US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice and National Security Advisor Samantha Power? They didn’t advocate for intervention in Libya with Iraq or Afghanistan in mind, but with the memories of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s. Did we intervene in Libya because of an idealist concern for human rights, despite our support for dictators like Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan? A State Department report accuses the Karimov regime of a laundry list of human rights abuses, including the use of torture and suppression of the right to freedom of speech. What possible reason could the United States have for aligning itself with ruthless dictators so similar to the one it so publicly deposed? "The object of Obama's interest is the 'Northern Distribution Network, the Central Asian roads over which diesel and other US military supplies now increasingly travel [into Afghanistan]," writes Russell Zanca in Foreign Policy. Better relations with Uzbekistan provide an alternative supply route that bypasses unreliable Pakistan. This longstanding image of American hypocrisy – the double standard of disregarding ethics for self-interest – continues to perpetuate anti-American sentiment throughout the world.
Questions of intention aside, the Libyan Intervention was still in violation of the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval for any military action within 90 days. The administration argued that the NATO operations in Libya did not require any approval, since no "sustained fighting,” “exchanges of fire with hostile forces,” or "US ground troops" were involved. But as the engagement continued past the White House’s own time estimates, the administration worked frantically to keep European and Arab allies on board so the United States would not be trapped with full responsibility for Libya.
The majority of this administration’s decisions, even at their most questionable, are no worse than those made during the Bush years. While some are now praising Obama for his successes in foreign policy, they have seemingly forgotten that President Obama’s decisions bear little resemblance to the policies on which Senator Obama ran. Is this the foreign policy driven by “reason” and “principle” that he advocated? How can we assess long-term safety, when a quieter American aggression continues to foment anti-Americanism around the world? The inconsistencies of Obama’s foreign policy on the campaign trail and in office reflects the great contradiction of American foreign policy in the War on Terror – the actions we rationalize to fight terrorism, from drone strikes to torture to extrajudicial killings, ultimately provide backing for the very terrorist sentiments that we’re desperately trying to overcome.