President Obama, 'Warrior in Chief'

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Peter Bergen, writing in the Sunday New York Times, makes the case that Barack Obama has been a very hawkish president--that he's less the "negotiator in chief," as stereotype would have it, than the "warrior in chief."

Mr. Obama decimated Al Qaeda's leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

I agree that Obama has been pretty belligerent--more so than I'd like, certainly. But I'm not so sure about the second part of Bergen's argument--that Obama's belligerence shouldn't come as a surprise.

Bergen says Obama telegraphed his approach with lines like "Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies." But that's just boilerplate; presidential candidates don't generally run on a platform of the nonexistence of evil, and I'm not aware of a president who has insisted that taking up arms against Hitler was going too far. Bergen offers only one concrete and specific Obama quote that he says should have been fair warning:

In an August 2007 speech on national security, he put the nation -- and the world -- on alert: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," he said, referring to Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan. He added, "I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America."

So this was supposed to prepare us for the fact that Obama has conducted more than 250 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing an estimated 1,400 people? Were all of these people--or half of them, or a third of them--"high value targets" who posed "a direct threat to America"? I was under the impression that lots of these people were killed because they were thought to pose a threat to our soldiers in Afghanistan, in which case I'd say they didn't pose "a direct threat to America." And as for the "high value targets" part: It turns out that our government often doesn't even know who the people are who are on the receiving end of the drone strikes in Pakistan!

The fact is that, when it comes to drone strikes, President Obama has been much more reckless than any of us had reason to believe. He has lobbed missiles prolifically and sometimes undiscerningly into an allied country, embittering many of its citizens in a way that may come back to haunt us. He's also used a drone to assassinate an American citizen abroad, disregarding the constitution's guarantee of due process of law. Obama probably does qualify for the term "warrior in chief," but those of us who aren't happy about this have a right to feel betrayed.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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