- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it’s because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there’s no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he’s right, and there’s also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don’t really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger — "blowback" — follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn’t emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don’t like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other’s internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can’t other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama’s approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I’d like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don’t ask, don’t tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it’s tempting to buy a lot of them and you’ll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let’s just take ’em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We’ve got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let’s give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman — or in the minds of some, the global vigilante — on the cheap may be a decision we’ll eventually regret.