Micah Zenko

The Warrior King

The Warrior King

During his second inaugural address, President Obama offered two aspirational statements that struck many observers as incongruous with administration policies: "A decade of war is now ending" and "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." We should question these observations, not least because of the string of U.S. government plans and activities that increasingly blur the conventional definition of war.

My own list of war-like activities since Obama’s inaugural would include: four drone strikes that killed 16 people (all in Yemen); the acknowledgement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta regarding drones, "We’ve done that in Pakistan. We’re doing it in Yemen and elsewhere. I think the reality is its going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future"; the announcement that the U.S. military would provide intelligence, transportation, and refueling support for the French intervention in Mali; the signing of a U.S.-Niger status of forces agreement that will likely include a drone base for surveillance missions, although U.S. officials "have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point"; the forthcoming expansion (perhaps quintupling) of U.S. Cyber Command, including "combat mission forces" for offensive cyberattacks; the executive branch’s secret legal review determining that Obama "has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad"; the Marine commandant’s announcement of a new "crisis response unit" that would be "rapidly employable" to "address crises"; and the revelation that the United States is negotiating to purchase the Sheraton Hotel in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to house the growing number of embassy staff, troops, and contractors who implement U.S. security force assistance and counterterrorism operations in that country. (For other examples, see the interesting End of War Timeline that Jack Goldsmith and Lawfare created.)

Using lethal force against other countries — and developing and sustaining the capabilities to do so in perpetuity — are the distinguishing features of a country at war. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld, Jr. remarked in November, "We remain a nation at war." In January, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Ted Koppel that even after 2014, "Our war in Afghanistan will be complete, but no one has ever suggested that that will end the war." Last week, Secretary Panetta reminded policymakers and the press, as he often does: "We are in a war. We’re in a war on terrorism and we’ve been in that war since 9/11." Finally, during his grueling confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel stated:  "We’re at war in Afghanistan. We’re at war around the world….The fact is we’ve been at war for 12 years."

Most analysts and journalists have focused on President Obama’s expanded scope, intensity, and institutionalization of targeted killings against suspected terrorists and militants. However, perhaps the enduring legacy of the Obama administration will be its sustained, rigorous effort to shape and define-down the idea of war. Consider in March 2011, during the NATO-led intervention in Libya, when a reporter asked White House spokesperson Jay Carney, "What is this military action?…Is it a war?" He replied, "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners." When pressed for more details, Carney added:

I’m not going to get into the terminology. I think what it is certainly not is, as others have said, a large-scale military — open-ended military action — the kind of which might otherwise be described as a war. There’s no ground troops, as the president said. There’s no land invasion.

After the war in Libya ended with the extrajudicial killing of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama bragged that U.S. involvement "only cost us $1 billion as opposed to $1 trillion," and "not a single U.S. troop [was] on the ground…not a single U.S. troop was killed. That, I think, is a recipe for success in the future." Thus, the strategic objective of military intervention is to minimize the quantifiable costs, not to develop a plausible strategy that achieves some desired outcome.

Similarly, White House senior counterterrorism adviser John Brennan defended drone strikes in April 2012 by comparing them to "deploying large armies abroad" and "large, intrusive military deployments." Soon afterward, when Carney was asked if the Obama administration relied on the same "loose definition of the declaration of war that President Bush did" in its use of drone strikes, he noted: "Using some of these tools is preferable when you are concerned about civilian casualties than, say, launching a full-scale invasion by land." (Perhaps unconsciously, senior administration officials always antiseptically refer to drone strikes as "targeted strikes" by "tools of national power" and not targeted killings of people by drones.)

This is all part of a systematic effort to remind Americans about the strategic error of invading Iraq, and to create the impression that counterterrorism strategies must incorporate kinetic force. Given the false dichotomy between 170,000 troops in Iraq and drone strikes, who would oppose the latter? Moreover, this implies that military operations involving less than a full-scale invasion or ground troops (which conveniently omits U.S. special operators or private military contractors required) is not considered a "war."

This characterization also assumes that war can only occur when it reaches some predetermined threshold of immediate human or financial costs. The president’s "recipe for success in the future" is for military operations that are low-cost and low-risk (in the short-term, as it turned out in Libya) for Americans. Not factored into the equation are the impact on the people living in the affected countries (and the global hatred for drone strikes) and "secondary and tertiary effects out here that one day you have to live with," as former CIA director Michael Hayden recently said (most notably the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the last two years from "several hundred" to a "few thousand" members). The bottom line: if Americans are detached from the repercussions, or shielded by executive branch secrecy and a disinterested Congress, it is not war.

Developments have only further confirmed my November prediction that America will never again have a peacetime president. If America is not engaged in a perpetual war, how else could the White House believe it has the legal authority to authorize an "informed, high-level" government official to order the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who is not provided the due process protections mandated by the Constitution?

Given how U.S. policymakers describe national security threats, and privilege military responses to them, it should not be surprising that the United States finds itself in a state of perpetual war. Isn’t this why we spend $633 billion on defense and $75.4 billion on national and military intelligence, not to mention the 134,508 U.S. servicemembers deployed around the world (not including 68,000 in Afghanistan)? War is not only the D-Day invasion of Normandy or Operation Desert Storm. Don’t let anyone — even a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — tell you otherwise.