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A Reluctant Hawk with a Dovish Attitude

A recent New York Times article discussing the “nomination” process outlined in the Obama administration’s counterterror strategy has yielded an interesting, yet unexpected, response from the American public. The article, which was written in the wake of the death of Al Qaeda second-in command, Sakhr al-Taifi by a NATO airstrike last week, raises questions concerning the Obama administration’s decision-making process in discerning civilians from possible enemy combatants when conducting military operations. The article also details the administration’s apparent “Whack a Mole” strategy towards counterterrorism, bearing a strong reminder of the infamous “deck of card” most-wanted list used by the Bush administration during the Iraq War. In an interesting reversal, critics have accused the President of flouting due process. They have even accused him of killing American citizens without proper trial, as in the case of home-grown radical Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen by a drone strike last September. Despite the president Obama’s successes in combating terrorism at home and abroad, what explains the administration’s continued use of such aggressive tactics? How can a man who so vigorously campaigned against the Iraq war and “harsh interrogation techniques,” (AKA water-boarding) be so adamant in targeting suspected terrorists?

In summer of 2008 I can still remember paying close attention to then Senator Obama campaigning on the ideals of hope and change. At this time, Obama remained ahead in the polls, prior to the petite surge. All of this came before the financial meltdown that ultimately cemented an Obama victory. Despite the President’s general support during the election cycle in 2008, the long forgotten Russian invasion of South Ossetia in early August of 2008 impacted his polling numbers to a significant degree. During the crisis, McCain actually managed to take the lead. The point being that Obama, in the eyes of the American voters at that moment, appeared to look weak for not giving as tough a response to Russian “aggression” as compared to the McCain administration. Similarly, Obama’s primary battle with Hilary Clinton also raised the same criticism of “naïveté”, noted by the Clinton’s use of the “3 a.m” ad, featuring a hypothetical doomsday scenario designed to raise doubts over Obama’s readiness to respond.

Fast-forward to present day America and the president appears to have undergone a strategy of passive-aggression. A tactic which was undoubtedly influenced by doubts over the Obama administrations preparedness. The administration’s slow response in closing down the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison seems to coincide with Obama’ willingness to avoid “ugly” trials on American soil, an issue he caught flack on previously over attempting to try the perpetrators of 9/11 in New York.

At the same time, the Obama administration has taken progressive steps by outlawing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” ending the War in Iraq, and successfully leading the intervention in Libya. What explains this policy paradox? The answer to the question is that the Obama administration is dependent on the strategies being used by Al Qaeda today, not a decade ago. The shift in Al Qaeda’s strategy in attacking the West has been the adoption of homegrown terrorism as a means of force, with lesser attention paid towards an external offensive due to heightened levels of security in airports and at borders. In many respects, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy has been a response to the changing nature of terrorist tactics. The difficulty associated with extraction of terrorist operatives has grown even more difficult as NATO forces continue to leave the region. With most Western nations cutting costs, especially military expenditures, the use of drone strikes over ground forces lowers the costs of not just the budget, but also the loss of American lives. Does the ends justify the means? Only time will tell.

–  Cody Levine

Featured Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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