Return of the Drones


During the last four years, President Barack Obama has made drone warfare the centerpiece of the so-called War on Terror. But this is only one piece of the Obama Administration’s overall national security strategy, which includes expanding America’s shadow wars to Northern Africa and adding cyberwarfare as a standard operating procedure. Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room breaks down the challenges facing the Obama Administration during their next four years:

First, Obama’s got to help Congress avert 9.4 percent annual, automatic cuts to practically every Defense Department program for the next 10 years, as both he and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, are on record opposing them.

Next comes Iran. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that he will feel the need to strike Iran by next summer. Obama has a stronger hand with Netanyahu now that he doesn’t have to worry about reelection, but he’s still committed himself rhetorically to preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. Even if Obama can avert a war, his clear preference, Iran will continue to consume a tremendous amount of the White House and the Pentagon’s attention. The alternative to a massive bombing campaign might not be so benign, either: the point of Stuxnet was to make the Iranians distrust the industrial controls on their nuclear program’s centrifuges.

Then comes Afghanistan, a war that Obama does not discuss candidly. He’s fond of saying, as he did in one of his final ads, that he plans on “ending the war in Afghanistan, so we can do some nation-building here at home.” His real policy is way more complex than that. Yes, Obama is committed to withdrawing most troops and ending a formal U.S. combat role by 2014. Obama plans to keep a residual troop presence in the country, even after the 2014 “withdrawal,” and negotiations with the Afghans about what shape that presence will take — and for what purpose — are supposed to begin shortly. Among the things Obama is likely to seek: Afghanistan’s permission to keep its air bases as launchpads for drone strikes into Pakistan. The charitable interpretation is to say Obama is caveating his out-of-Afghanistan pledge. The uncharitable interpretation is that he’s misleading the country on it.

The Obama administration is still grappling with the implications of its sprawling, robot-led war. Some of its top officials are just starting to question how long the strikes have to persist. But they haven’t addressed concerns about the precedent the U.S. is setting by sending robots to violate the sovereignty of nations, which are unavoidable as drone technology advances and proliferates. Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees a reckoning with the robots on the horizon.

Photo: President Obama at NSC Meeting in the Situation Room.

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