The Global War on Terror

by Conor Friedersdorf

The New York Times reports:

In roughly a dozen countries from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The White House has intensified the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan, approved raids against Qaeda operatives in Somalia and launched clandestine operations from Kenya. The administration has worked with European allies to dismantle terrorist groups in North Africa, efforts that include a recent French strike in Algeria. And the Pentagon tapped a network of private contractors to gather intelligence about things like militant hide-outs in Pakistan and the location of an American soldier currently in Taliban hands.

While the stealth war began in the Bush administration, it has expanded under President Obama, who rose to prominence in part for his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the United States government have been publicly acknowledged. In contrast with the troop buildup in Afghanistan, which came after months of robust debate, for example, the American military campaign in Yemen began without notice in December and has never been officially confirmed.

It's a strange political landscape indeed where a bestselling author can assert in the pages of National Review Online that the President of the United States is allied with Islamist radicals in their grand jihad, even as that same president leads a global effort to kill al Qaeda operatives. I wonder if we aren't seeing the worst of all worlds here: the opposition party can neither help President Obama to carry out this far reaching effort, nor oppose it due to prudential concerns about executive power, because merely acknowledging that he is aggressively fighting terrorists undermines the fantastical narrative that he is soft on jihad.

Democrats are as silent about ongoing military operations in countries where we haven't declared war, or even debated it. So perhaps it's more helpful to see this through an institutional lens. As Gene Healy pointed out in a characteristically great column, our modern legislators are derelict in their duties. "The Constitution gives Congress vast powers over war and peace, and charges it with making the laws of the land," he wrote. "Yet our feckless legislators prefer to punt the hard decisions to the president and the permanent bureaucracy, even if it leaves the rest of us mired in uncertainty and crushing debt."

I am persuadable, though as yet unconvinced, that the imperatives of the modern terrorist threat requires covert military action. And I certainly cheer when I read about the death of high-ranking al Qaeda officials, whether in Iraq or Yemen. Maybe a policy like the one the Obama Administration is pursuing would make sense after careful reflection.

The problem is that the benefits of this approach are speculative, whereas its drawbacks are demonstrated by ample evidence. In the past, Presidents of the United States have proven that the executive branch can be corrupted by the ability to wage undeclared wars without Congressional oversight. At the very least, President Obama should be subject to stronger oversight and real checks on his power if this is America's chosen course.

There is also the likelihood of blowback, and the inevitable unintended consequences of mucking about abroad. Says the New York Times later in that same article, "some of the central players of those days have returned to take on supporting roles in the shadow war. Michael G. Vickers, who helped run the C.I.A.’s campaign to funnel guns and money to the Afghanistan mujahedeen in the 1980s and was featured in the book and movie 'Charlie Wilson’s War,' is now the top Pentagon official overseeing Special Operations troops around the globe." Would we run those guns and money to the mujahedeen if we had it to do over again with the benefit of hindsight?

It's especially interesting to discuss this policy at a time when so much of the right is insisting that we return to the vision of government laid out by the Founders. Needless to say, a president who wages clandestine wars on multiple continents is incompatible with the founding vision of the office, the ways it was designed to be checked, and its enumerated limits.