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The "Light Footprint": Economy & Secrecy in Obama's Military Policies


Barack Obama is now more than three-and-a-half years into his presidency and at least a preliminary assessment of his approach to foreign policy is possible. Three journalists have each written such analyses, all of them published this year: Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, by Daniel Klaidman; The Obamians: The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power, by James Mann; and Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David Sanger. Klaidman is a Newsweek special correspondent; Mann is a former L.A. Times reporter who now works at Johns Hopkins University; and Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times.

As the title suggests, Klaidman's book focuses on the Obama administration's policy of killing suspected terrorists, as well as the internal debates over what to do with terrorism suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay. Mann and Sanger's books both take more panoramic views of Obama's foreign policy, examining not only the administration's counterterrorism policies but also its relations with China, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, as well as its response to the "Arab Spring" uprisings of 2011.

All three books offer highly readable accounts of President Obama's foreign policy decisions. All three also suffer from a fault common in journalism, perhaps especially journalism about contemporary politics: a reliance on anonymous or only vaguely identified ("administration official," "intelligence official") sources. Klaidman is particularly frustrating in not providing any footnotes, whether for anonymous sources or any other type. Granted, these authors are far from unique in this approach and promises of anonymity were presumably necessary to get the sources to speak to them at all. Nevertheless, much of what the books report about matters outside the public record, such as internal administration debates, should be taken with at least a few grains of salt.

Allowing for these accounts' limitations, what kind of picture do they present of the Obama administration's foreign policy? In particular -- to focus on a question of particular importance to consistent life ethic advocates -- what kind of picture do they present of the administration's use of military force or other forms of violence as foreign policy tools? The overall impression the books leave is of a president quite willing to use violence but leery of risking American troops' lives or of spending billions on military operations. Obama tends to favor reliance on allies; air power, whether in the form of planes or pilotless drones; covert action by special operations troops or intelligence operatives; and other "light footprint" (to use a phrase from Sanger's book) methods. By contrast, large-scale commitment of ground troops has been avoided, except in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most dramatic action taken by Obama to avoid large-scale military commitments was the gradual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq -- one of the great achievements of this presidency to date. The 2011 US intervention in Libya's civil war provides a different example of an economy-minded use of force. The intervention emphasized a bombing campaign against Muammar Qaddafi's regime rather than putting in ground forces, and Obama took care to swiftly hand leadership of the air campaign over to allies such as France and the United Kingdom (although the United States certainly remained a participant even after deferring to its allies). One result of this arrangement was that the Libyan intervention cost the United States about $1-$3 million a day by April 2011, while the war in Afghanistan cost over $300 million daily. Another example of the "light footprint" approach is Obama's famous -- or infamous -- reliance on killing suspected terrorists or other militants by means of drone attacks or strikes by special operations forces. Reliable numbers on drone attacks are elusive, but Sanger estimates that the Obama administration authorized 265 drone strikes by 2012, in comparison to 40 such strikes during George W. Bush's administration. Roughly 60 bases for drone operations, run by the military or CIA, now exist. Sanger also says that strikes by joint special operations forces rose to 10 to 15 per night under Obama, although he does not provide a source for that claim. Targeted killing most famously claimed the life of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011, but others were killed in this way, including alleged al-Qaeda operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan -- both American citizens -- in Yemen in September 2011; Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an alleged al-Qaeda member who worked with the Somali Islamist Shabab organization, in Somalia in September 2009; and Baitullah Mehsud, a member of the Pakistani Taliban, in August 2009.

A little-known but very intriguing example of Obama's approach -- one that is not "violent" in the traditional sense, but is not exactly peaceful either -- is his use of cyber-warfare. This is a subject covered in Sanger's book alone: he claims that the US government, first under Bush and then under Obama, has attempted to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program by smuggling a virus into the computer system at Iran's facility in Natanz where centrifuges work to enrich uranium. This highly classified program, known as "Olympic Games," was undertaken in coordination with the Israelis and has apparently caused centrifuges to malfunction and might have caused some delays or obstruction to the uranium enrichment program. Sanger's account is reportedly based on interviews with a variety of participants in "the covert effort against Iran," none of whom would speak to him on the record. Nevertheless, some outside corroboration for his account is available. If indeed the Obama administration has been pursuing cyber-warfare -- undermining another nation with a few lines of computer code -- then this would certainly be consistent with the general policy of reducing costs and American casualties.

This carefully qualified approach to using force, whether real or virtual, has a certain logic in the current political context. With the United States reeling from a weak economy and two unpopular wars, a policy that targets enemies while avoiding the sacrifice of American lives or money would appeal to most politicians. The need to tailor US foreign policy to reduced resources is a theme in both Mann and Sanger's books. The implications for future military operations were articulated by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he said "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined.'"

This more economical approach to war and national security certainly serves, at least in the short term, to reduce American casualties in war. Nevertheless, it has a more disturbing side. Military commitments might be smaller under Obama, but the tendency of the president to make military decisions in secret and without restraint persists. The Libya intervention, for example, was notable not only as a carefully limited American military campaign but also as an example of a president taking the country to war without congressional approval. Obama did not receive Congress' authorization before bombing Libya, and he did not seek it even when US involvement in the Libyan campaign had gone on for 60 days -- the deadline set by the 1973 War Powers Resolution for seeking congressional authorization.

As long as decisions about the use of violence continue to be made by the president without adequate oversight or discussion, then the risk of stumbling into some larger conflict or provoking some larger crisis also continues, even if American casualties are kept low in the process. Drone strikes might have eliminated terrorists, but they might also have created some: Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American who tried to bomb the New York subway system, and Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American convicted of trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, both cited drone attacks on their ancestral lands as reasons for their actions. The fact that drone attacks have killed innocent people makes them all the more likely to elicit anti-American hatred. In the same way, the killing of Osama bin Laden and other American attacks on Pakistani soil have fueled anti-American sentiment in that nation. Bin Laden's killing -- carried out without Pakistani knowledge or consent -- led to denunciations of the United States before Pakistan's parliament and threats to end US-Pakistani cooperation. Anti-Americanism in an unstable, nuclear-armed nation might ultimately prove more dangerous than a single terrorist. Even the seemingly mild practice of cyber-warfare has ominous implications: to attack the infrastructure of another nation might be considered an act of war, especially if people die in the process (and malfunctioning centrifuges can be deadly). Can Iran now attack American troops or citizens, either directly or through terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah, and claim to be acting in retaliation for cyber-sabotage of their nuclear facilities? Will the United States be drawn into a larger conflict as the result of decisions made largely in secret?


Photo by West Point Public Affairs; some rights reserved.

These dangers of Obama's new approach aside, one of the greatest flaws in his foreign policy to date has been the major exception to the more economical approach: Afghanistan. In contrast to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the use of air power, drones, and computer code elsewhere, American troops remain committed in large numbers to fighting a war in Afghanistan. Even when planned withdrawals are taken into account, almost 70,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan. Given that roughly 1,000 Americans have died in the region in the last few years alone, a continued American presence in Afghanistan for even a couple more years is a grim prospect. After more than a decade of war, peace remains elusive, even with a "lighter footprint."


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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