The Double-Edged Legacy of Obamawar


From Obamacare to Keystone, President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have demonstrated their commitment to reversing President Obama’s domestic legacy. But the latest U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, as well as the ill-fated raid on an al-Qaeda compound, are the first signs that the Trump administration will likely continue Obamawar — Obama’s primary foreign policy innovation and his most consequential legacy as commander-in-chief.

In his first term, Obama’s foreign policy record was punctuated by the failed surge in Afghanistan and the poorly planned ouster of Qaddafi. But in his second term, the 44th commander-in-chief found his footing. Contrary to claims that Obama lacked a coherent logic to guide foreign policy and the application of force, Obama’s use of force in his second term stuck to a clear and consistent pattern.

The Roots and Nature of Obamawar

Obamawar narrowed the use of American military force from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism and focused on disrupting and degrading terrorist networks that threatened the West. Obama didn’t get there right away. Early in his first term, he surged troops into Afghanistan in an effort to quell the insurgency and build functioning governance (textbook counterinsurgency), as his predecessor did in Iraq in the chaos after Saddam’s ouster. And despite his previous misgivings with regime change, founded in opposition to Bush’s removal of Saddam, Obama authorized a humanitarian intervention in Libya that quickly evolved into a military campaign to topple Qaddafi.

But Obama came to consider the ouster of Qaddafi his greatest foreign policy mistake. And even as he authorized the surge into Afghanistan, the President did so with the recognition that an open-ended campaign was unsustainable and ultimately disproportionate to American interests there. In his second term, Obama refused to use force to stop the fighting in Syria or to topple Assad, or to scale up America’s commitment in Afghanistan. Instead, he restricted American force in these theaters to pummeling ISIL in northern Syria, and al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions. Quietly, he also sent additional American military personnel back to Iraq to help with the fight against ISIL. The goal of Obamawar is, simply and unambitiously, counterterrorism.

In keeping with the counterterrorism goal, the targets of Obamawar were non-state actors based in the greater Middle East, South Asia, and Africa resolved to attack the West. Except for his 2011 blunder in Libya, Obama did not target state actors with American force, despite the fact that at various moments over the course of his terms, the governments of Iran and especially Syria were enticing targets.

Obamawar’s most distinctive characteristic was its light-footprint method, which combined two features: precision strikes from the air and special operations forces on the ground. The drone program started during the Bush administration, but the number of precision strikes rose dramatically under Obama, becoming the hallmark feature of Obamawar. Since January 2009, U.S. manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) have attacked terrorist targets in “untraditional” theaters including Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Exact numbers remain classified, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the most comprehensive (least bad) publisher of drone data, indicates that the United States has launched hundreds of precision strikes against terrorist targets in these jurisdictions.

The second feature of Obamawar’s light-footprint method is the deployment of special operations forces around the world on historic proportions. These forces provide a variety of services, ranging from direct action and “advise and assist” to counseling on health care oragricultural reform, to passing out soccer balls inscribed with anti-jihadi messages. The role of special operations forces has helped to blur the distinction “between war and not-war.” The light-footprint method contrasts with the large numbers of “boots on the ground” required for more ambitious, counterinsurgency operations.

That is Obamawar. Its goal is strictly and narrowly counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or regime change. Obamawar’s targets are terrorist organizations — not governments. And Obamawar’s method is light-footprint precision strikes from the air and special operators on the ground — not large numbers of infantry, or “boots on the ground.” Obamawar is narrow in goal, target, and method.

Obamawar: The Implications

Though narrow in goal, target, and method, when it comes to space and time, Obamawar is as expansive as it gets. Obama took the counterterrorism fight to new targets in new jurisdictions. He surpassed Bush and all other contenders as America’s longest wartime president, with no end in sight.

Obamawar is a double-edged innovation. For one thing, Obamawar has countervailing humanitarian implications: It is unclear whether precision technology spares lives (through precise targeting) or whether the gradual expansion of Obamawar in time and space will eventually lead to more civilian deaths. Separately, and perhaps most importantly, Obamawar’s low visibility has eroded the remaining public and congressional checks on executive warmaking. Some might celebrate an executive branch insulated against the whims of public opinion and a dysfunctional congress. But checks and balances are there for good reason, even checks on executive warmaking, and complete concentration of warmaking authority inside the Oval Office is worrisome even with the very best president at the helm — to say nothing of the very worst.

The Humanitarian Question


The precision of Obamawar has conflicting implications for collateral damage. Precision munitions minimize collateral damage associated with each strike, making the war on terror for the past eight years one of the most “humane” wars ever fought. Advances in precision and surveillance technology enabled American servicemembers to drop missiles on targets with “near certainty” that there would be no collateral damage. Hundreds (estimates vary widely) of civilians have died in American drone strikes. They die due to mistaken identities, malfunctioning weapons, or predetermined “proportionate” collateral damage. Though the data on civilian deaths is poor, one thing is clear — conventional invasions and occupations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, or World War II style aerial bombing, kill civilians at dramatically higher rates. This is the humanitarian argument for Obamawar, and one that Obama cited in every major counterterrorism address.

But there are reasons to contest the humanitarian argument for light-footprint warfare: it rests on a straw man counterfactual. Precision strikes only spare lives if the alternative is, as Obama argued, conventional force. But in many theaters, the more probable alternative to precision strikes more closely resembles inaction than conventional force. It is difficult to believe, for instance, that the United States would deploy large numbers of American ground troops to the Arabian Peninsula or East Africa if the precision strike option were off the table. The threats posed by al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabaab are simply not big enough to justify such costly action. The relatively low cost (in American blood and treasure) of precision technology enabled Obamawar to expand the fight into more theaters, and at least in those theaters, to kill more people (including civilians) than otherwise possible.

Precision technology allowed Obamawar to expand the counterterrorism war not only in geographic space, but also in time. The United States can sustain low-cost, low-visibility precision strikes indefinitely. Though discreet, conventional operations might result in large numbers of deaths in a given time window. Precision strike campaigns that continue indefinitely may, eventually, kill more people (combatants and civilians) than conventional alternatives.

Erosion of Checks on the Executive

Perhaps the most consequential legacy of Obamawar is the concentration of warmaking authority inside the Oval Office. Because of low American casualties, low collateral damage, and low media coverage, the American people are only vaguely aware of America’s use of force and the ever-expanding, longest-running war in American history. And low-visibility, like precision, is a double-edged sword. Low-visibility enables the executive branch to continue to implement the war with minimal public or congressional interference. A public that barely sees the fight and does not carry its weight in blood won’t oppose it in the polls or hold the executive accountable in elections.

As for congressional authorization, Obamawar relies on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the domestic legal grounds for attacking an ever-growing list of targets. The text of the AUMF implied congressional authorization for military force against only the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Obama administration, however, developed an expansive interpretation, ultimately claiming that additional congressional authorization would not be needed for adding new targets to counterterrorism hit lists (e.g. al-Shabaab and ISIL). Congress was not a meek victim of executive overreach — it was complicit in the erosion of its own warmaking power. In response to Obama’s repeated requests, Congress repeatedly “refused to take a vote” to repeal the outdated AUMF and to issue new new authorizations tailored to specific organizations. Regardless of which branch is to blame and why, the fact is that the erosion of congressional power to authorize American force is a defining feature of Obamawar. And the erosion of the congressional authorization check is especially significant given that congressional oversight of American war-making has long been on the decline and judicial deference to the executive on the rise. The authorization check was just about the only check left.

An unchecked commander-in-chief may ultimately prove Obama’s most enduring and consequential legacy.

An insulated executive branch could theoretically be a good thing. After all, the executive branch, with its career experts and large budget, is, as Cass Sunstein points out, the most knowledgeable branch, and the branch rightfully entrusted with the authority to implement America’s wars. “When members of Congress see incompetence or wrongdoing, or call for someone’s resignation, they might be right, but they might also have no idea what they are talking about. They are also unaware of that fact.” If public and congressional intrusion hurts more than it helps, low-visibility may be the most positive legacy of Obamawar.

But low-visibility and the erosion of public and congressional checks on executive war-making (which did not begin with Obama but certainly accelerated over the past eight years) have concerning implications.

On pure separation of powers grounds, liberal interpretations of the 2001 AUMF have eroded Congress’ constitutionally designated role as the war authorizing branch.

But, robust checks on executive war-making are more than democratic ends in themselves — they are also important because the executive branch left to its own devices sometimes gets things wrong. For one thing, despite diversity of opinions and deliberations within the executive branch, at the end of the day, everyone works for the same person — the president. There is reason to believe that this group will be relatively like-minded, and issues circulated solely within the executive may weather insufficiently diverse scrutiny. In addition, people who work for the president may be inclined to please, and produce “happy talk” instead of accurate. Third, an un-interrogated executive branch can build policies based more on inertia than rigorous reevaluation.

Pathologies within the executive branch may be especially pernicious when it comes to the development of the precision strike counterterrorism strategy. Targeted killing has been enormously satisfying for defense and intelligence agencies long starved for countable markers of success in counterinsurgencies, and tactical effectiveness can heavily skew estimations of strategic effectiveness. Wars fail when tactics drive strategy. The development of a precision strike approach to counterterrorism may also have been driven by other a-strategic motivations including: the Obama administration’s determination to avoid “quagmire,” interest in appearing tough on terror, and the timing of advances in precision technology.

For these reasons, a counterterrorism strategy designed by even the most expert, well-intentioned executive branch should be accountable to the public, the congress, and in certain cases the judiciary.

And, of course the executive branch will not always be staffed with the most expert, well-intentioned executive servants. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” An unwise or immoral executive branch with unchecked war-making authority is an ominous development.

Looking Ahead

President Trump has already begun to build on Obamawar, and is likely to expand the war to new targets, into new theaters, and over the duration of his term(s). He can expand the target list, change the targeting criteria, or increase the number of strikes and theaters without congressional authorization, without notifying the American public, and without the threat of ex-post judicial review. He can reduce the granularity of strike information he provides to congressional oversight committees, and reduce disclosures to the public, and neither the congress nor the American people are likely to push back.

Thanks to light-footprint’s trademark precision, American casualties and collateral damage associated with each strike will likely remain low. But with precision comes low-visibility, and with low-visibility comes unchecked executive authority. With unchecked executive authority, it is difficult to imagine how the long war will end. And with unchecked executive authority in the hands of a most unenlightened statesman, the long war will not just get longer, wider, and likely crueler — it may ultimately jeopardize American security.


Rachel Tecott is a PhD student in political science at MIT. She studies strategy and decision-making in inter- and intrastate war. Find her on Twitter @racheltecott.


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Everett Allen.