Fletcher Features

The “Light Footprint Strategy:” Drones and Cyberattacks in the Obama Presidency

On November 6, 2012, American voters re-elected Barack Obama to serve another four-year term as president of the United States. How different will U.S. foreign policy be during the second half of the Obama Presidency? In particular, what does Obama’s re-election signify for U.S. national security strategy? These were among the questions that David Sanger, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The New York Times, addressed at a recent talk at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“If history suggests anything, what a U.S. President does in his first term is a false indicator of what’s to come in the second,” began Sanger. “George W. Bush Jr.’s term is a prime example;  in fact, President Barack Obama’s first term is more akin to President Bush’s last four years in office.”

Sanger, who is the author most recently of Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, said that the two main covert programs—cyberweaponry and drones—were embraced by the Obama Administration, but they were legacies of the Bush Administation.

“Surprisingly, Mr. Obama took both seriously when he took office,” Sanger said. “There was nothing to indicate Mr. Obama would favor covert programs of this sort, given the rhetoric of engagement during the 2008 election campaign.”

In some ways, both programs were the product of necessity as well. Sanger acknowledged the Obama Administration’s efforts to reach out to countries like Iran and North Korea in its first year. If any effort to engage Iran came to an abrupt halt after the crackdown on the ‘Green Movement’ protests, North Korea typically rebuffed rapprochement by conducting nuclear tests.

As a result, President Obama and his team, Sanger said, had to devise a strategy that balanced national security concerns while being mindful of public opinion against big and costly military operations.

“President Obama’s team formulated a ‘light footprint strategy,’ knowing full well that the era of big attritional wars was over – today, it is clear the United States is no longer going to send troops to a foreign nation with the objective of rewiring its society,” he said.

As a result, the Obama Administration favors non-conventional modes of warfare that can “move in and move out” of the theatre. According to Sanger, there have been nearly 300 drone attacks since President Obama came to office, compared to the 48 sanctioned by President Bush: “clearly drones are here to stay.” Cyber programs like the Stuxnet virus that disrupted Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges assume the role of saboteurs. Stuxnet would have continued to be in operation had it not been for a programming mistake that led to the virus being leaked onto the Internet in 2010. “Confront and Conceal begins with a briefing by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the White House Situation Room, explaining to the President that Stuxnet had, in fact, leaked,” said Mr. Sanger.

What these programs show for U.S. national security are the contours of an “Obama Doctrine,” Sanger said: “President Obama is not afraid to act as unilaterally as his predecessor when it comes to vital national security interests; where American security is not the central concern, as in Libya, you can expect him to provide ‘back-up.’”

The appeal of covert programs lies in their high probability of success: add room for ‘plausible deniability’, and you have a lethal strategy of ‘maximal benefits, minimal costs.’

“Who wouldn’t want a light footprint if it works,” Sanger asked. “The mood in Washington is clear: America spent a staggering $3.3 trillion on this war and can’t afford to go on this path anymore, when the country is only just recovering from a massive economic crisis,” he said.

This is not to say that drones and cyber attacks are being uncritically accepted, even in President Obama’s advisory circles. Sanger said one senior military adviser recently told him that the secret projects are doing more harm than good in the long-run.

“The problem is, we haven’t stipulated any rules for drones or cyber attacks. What happens if someone simply turns the tables and uses these weapons against the United States?” he said. We saw the enormous damage that an unprecedented, but entirely natural, phenomenon like Hurricane Sandy could inflict on New York City. “Can you imagine the consequences of a concerted cyber attack on say, its water or power supply? With the drones too, questions are being raised as to how the territorial sovereignty of other countries is being infringed. Without a legal justification, the use of such covert programs is quite problematic.”

What's more, the core objectives of the 'War on Terror' have arguably been met, raising questions about the continued use of drones and cyberattacks as a counter-terrorism strategy, said Sanger. “The closer you are to eliminating al Qaeda’s central leadership, the further distended you get from legally justifying covert programs.”

-- A student correspondent

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