Barack Obama has now been at war longer than any president in United States history, as the New York Times pointed out on Sunday. Barring some sort of peace miracle in the next six months, he will be the only president who ever served two full terms in office while constantly being at war. And given how he has transformed how the US fights overseas, his wars will likely continue long after he leaves office.
Anytime the media writes about Obama and war, it’s apparently a rule that the author must mention that Obama supposedly fights his wars more reluctantly than his predecessors. But in many contexts, this is misleading. Obama hasn’t attempted to avoid war; he has merely redefined it. In some ways, he has fought them in a far more aggressively than any president before him, just with different tools.
Gone are the battalions of tens of thousands of soldiers, torching everything in their paths. Obama’s wars are fought with special forces, drones and other high-tech weaponry that, he argues, lead to fewer American deaths. But they pose the same dangers to world peace that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq once did, while making them far easier to fight.
Obama’s hallmark has been drone strikes, which he has used to bomb at least seven countries since becoming president. For all the talk of their precision and pin-pointedness, though, drones regularly kill additional people and have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. These strikes cause blowback and stoke anti-American hatred in virtually every country they fly in, and many former officials say the program does more harm than good.
But it’s not just drones. Instead of being straightforward with the public, his administration hides behind secrecy and word gymnastics in all facets of its war policy, keeping the number of exact number of troops in the Middle East hidden from the public, and re-defining words like “combat” and “boots on the ground” and “civilians” to mask how much killing is really going on.
Even the word “end” has lost all meaning. Obama declared the “end” of the Iraq war in 2011 only to start sending troops back. In Afghanistan, he didn’t even go through that formality. While he declared the Afghanistan war over in 2014, thousands of troops continue to fight, and sometimes die, inside the country to this day. There is no definite timetablefor when they will leave, if ever.
How many troops are in each country exactly? Well as the Times points out, we don’t know, since the Pentagon refuses to say. We do know that there are at least tenfold more troops in Iraq now than there were in the latter half of 2014, when Obama went on television and said that the US would be conducting “limited” airstrikes there. Since then, more than 25,000 bombs have been dropped in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
For a reluctant warrior, Obama also has smashed records for selling weaponry and arms to our Middle East “allies”, many of whom continue to wage their own wars of destruction. One of those wars, Saudi Arabia’s, has thrown Yemen into chaos and strengthened al-Qaida, which has, in turn, led to Obama sending US troops back into the country. The timetable on that fight? “Short term”, a Pentagon spokesman said last week.
This is not to say Obama’s wars are completely comparable to his predecessors’, including those of George W Bush – his Iraq war remains the most calamitous foreign policy mistake of our generation. And with each passing year, despite the fact that no one wants to admit it, the Afghanistan war inches closer to the same.
But at least Bush fought his wars with authorization from Congress, something that Obama has refused to do with his war on Isis, despite the constitution requiring it. Maybe this isn’t solely the Obama administration’s fault. Congress has shown itself to be cowardly in upholding its constitutional responsibility, content with the president taking all the blame when things go wrong. But the Obama administration has continually refused put forth its own plan for an Isis war authorization beyond a couple of soundbites saying it’d be nice if Congress passed one (while also making clear it won’t make a difference either way).
Whoever the next president is, there’s little chance he or she uses these powers less. Donald Trump is an unpredictable maniac who denounces military interventions in one breath and promises them in the next. Hillary Clinton, a longtime favorite of the neocon crowd even before Trump became the Republican nominee, has supported virtually every aggressive US military action in the past 15 years and has already promised more military intervention than Obama.
Rather than being remembered as the reluctant warrior, pushed into war by circumstance, there is far more likelihood Obama will be remembered as the opposite: the president who cemented the forever war mentality and architecture that has continually expanded, and that tragically shows no signs of slowing.
© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm