Politics & Policy

Our Sort-of War on Terror

Obama’s policies are incoherent, but does anyone care?

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Both Left and Right assumed, apparently rightly, that more bad guys were being eliminated than innocents, and the pilotless missions allowed the public a general sense that we were doing something about terrorists while not risking our soldiers in the process — and most certainly not capturing enemy combatants, interrogating them, and adding to the tally inside the politically incorrect Guantanamo. For the global media, the fact that the president turned to philosophy in his angst over killing record numbers, that former Guantanamo critic and Yale Law dean Harold Koh often signed off on the legality of such assassinations, and that it was not George Bush who authorized them, made the kill missions politically correct.


There is no coherent strategy for reducing Middle Eastern support for radical Islam, for promoting U.S.-friendly regimes, and for fostering human rights and consensual government. Iraq is no longer the bad war and Afghanistan the good one we took our eye off; instead, we exited the former and will the latter regardless of the situation on the ground — on the rough premise that Bush started them, and Obama finished them, and that is all ye need to know.

#ad#To this day, no one in the administration can define “lead from behind” in the Libyan context. No one can explain what happened in Benghazi. And no one can summarize what is going on at present in Libya — or whether such an interventionist model is a blueprint for any future action elsewhere. When in 2009 Iranians hit the streets in protest against the mullahs’ theocracy, the administration went mum. Bashar Assad was first a “reformer” who might help to unlock the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, then a psychopath who was on the eve of getting the same just deserts from NATO as did Moammar Qaddafi, then someone who should be left alone to kill 60,000 of his own, then a run-of-the-mill thug not much worse, or better, than the motley groups seeking to dethrone him.

All we can say about the administration’s approach to democratic Israel between 2009 and 2013 is that our present coolness is still far warmer than Obama would have wished — as post-election realities and appointments will probably soon make clear. The administration had no consistent position on the Arab Spring other than that the elected anti-American Islamist totalitarians almost seem to be preferable to the odious pro-American dictatorships they are replacing — but how and why is left unsaid. The cost of nation-building has been replaced by the economy of assassination — as the idealist Bush, with his speeches on freedom, gave way to the cynical Obama, with his private musings about who’s next on the Predator list.

As far as weaning ourselves off oil goes, the administration either ignored or opposed horizontal drilling and fracking, the only sure way to achieve political independence from the Middle East in the foreseeable future. To the degree that we are now more energy independent — so far mostly a private initiative on private lands — it is despite, not because of, Obama’s record on energy. Our $5 trillion in new debt will curtail our military options, but it is a mystery whether the administration laments that its huge serial deficits demand commensurate cuts in defense, or whether the latter all along was a desired result of the former.

Foreign policy often proves ironic. Sometimes chaos and confusion have their place. By posing as a post-national Nobel laureate, by promulgating all sorts of politically correct bromides, and by serially trashing the unpopular George Bush, Barack Obama found that he could do almost anything he wished, from eliminating hundreds of Taliban and other assorted suspected terrorists to killing bin Laden. Blowing up a suspect terrorist and any bystanders is now a moral act, whereas waterboarding three confessed terrorists was deemed immoral. The best that can be said for the Obama record is that if we are confused by it, then so must be our enemies.

As a final footnote, a common denominator to the simultaneous embrace and cheap public criticism of the Bush protocols, to the euphemisms, and to the expansion of the drone program has been the role of John Brennan, nominated last week to head the CIA.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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