Our Sort-of War on Terror
Obama’s policies are incoherent, but does anyone care?


Victor Davis Hanson

Either by design or through incompetence, the Obama administration’s war on terror has become indefinable. In fact, to the degree that there are identifiable policies, they seem either internally contradictory or at odds with other administration policies.

What is the current Obama position on the so-called Bush-era war-on-terror protocols? Are they still useful in stopping terrorists, irrelevant, toxic, or sort of all three? The administration has never given us an explanation of its attitude toward the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, the use of military tribunals, the exact status of renditions, the use of preventive detention, and the employment of the Patriot Act, especially wiretaps and intercepts.

To the extent that anyone could define the present anti-terrorism policy, it might be paraphrased along the following lines: “We rejected these protocols when, as outside critics, there was partisan advantage in doing so. But after assuming office, we found them useful, embraced most of them and even expanded some, preferred to ignore that about-face, assumed that the global and the domestic Left would not object any longer — given that their opposition was more to Bush than to his policies per se — and wish to continue these measures even as we keep quiet about them.”

Simultaneously with the flip-flop over the Bush inheritance, the administration also waged an ancillary war of euphemism. Jihad was not to be defined as an Islamist holy war against the West, but was to be officially regarded as a sort of Deepak Chopra personal struggle to achieve spiritual purity. The words Islamist and Islamism fell out of use. “The War on Terror” was rightly derided as a war against a tactic, but the phrase was wrongly not replaced with a more honest and accurate “War on radical Islamists, jihadists, and Salafists.” Absurdities, like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” followed and yet were not seriously employed for more than a week even by those who coined them. According to the Department of Defense, “workplace violence” best explained Major Hasan’s butchery of 13 of his fellow soldiers at Ford Hood — an act whose real significance was the possible harm to the military’s vaunted diversity program.

Eric Holder pontificated about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as a civilian in a New York federal court but then, given the popular outrage, quietly tabled that foolhardy idea. Support for the proposed Ground Zero mosque was likewise supposed to offer proof of administration outreach to Muslims, and likewise backfired. There was talk of ensuring Miranda rights for foiled foreign terrorist suspects — and then that too was quietly dropped. There were also loud threats of trying former CIA interrogators for their supposed use of torture — and then that was too quietly tabled. Apparently, the point of these missteps had been to placate possible liberal critics by painting a civil-libertarian veneer over the substantial continuation of the Bush war on terror. Or was there any idea at all, as policies were as haphazardly proposed as they were dropped and forgotten?

From 2005 to 2008 the U.S. may have killed between 200 and 700 enemy combatants or suspected terrorists through some 50 or so strikes by pilotless drones. Originally, the program was either used in close support of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan — drones being more or less equivalent to manned bombing missions or missile or mortar strikes — or employed against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Such strikes were, nonetheless, often criticized by the Left as leaving the theater of war and entering the realm of contract assassination.

Yet in the first four years of the Obama administration, the program was vastly expanded, as the kill tally soared to between 2,500 and 3,000 from some 300 or so strikes. Indeed, although the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were supposedly winding down, the Obama administration probably killed more suspects by drone in its first year than had the Bush administration in its entire eight-year tenure. Even more important than the vastly greater frequency, Obama brought some new dimensions to the drone attacks : 1) The targeted killings were used far distant from ongoing warfronts and well apart from support for ground troops, as the U.S. now blew apart suspects — including American citizens — as far away as Yemen and the Horn of Africa. A Predator was no longer analogous to a pilotless F-16 used against enemy forces in the field, but more a sort of super-telescopic assassination rifle aimed, in Cold War–era style, against suspected individual enemy agents. 2) The program was institutionalized, on the theory that the Left would not dare object and thereby endanger the Obama domestic agenda. (The Right, it was assumed, would keep quiet, content at least that the judge, jury, and executioner Predators were putting some fear into jihadists as we withdrew from the Middle East.) So much a part of the American political scene have Predator drones become that Obama off-handedly joked about using them against any potential suitors of his two daughters. (Imagine, a decade ago, George W. Bush joking about such lethal forces keeping young men away from his daughters.) We would read in addition, through timely leaks from administration aides, that Obama sought philosophical guidance from moralists like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas before he signed off on the next suspect to be blown up. Such agonizing apparently meant that an intellectual rather than a redneck was pulling the trigger. The result is that few now remember that the United States used to object vehemently to the Israelis’ use of the same tactic of airborne targeted assassination against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank.