As he welcomed his cabinet in 2009, Obama promised that “transparency…would be the touchstone of [his] Presidency.” That was then, this is now. With the appointment of drone warfare advocate John Brennan, Obama has wholeheartedly embraced the quieter, less transparent tools of American foreign policy. Even at a time of fiscal restraint, he has authorized the expansion of and increased powers for the Special Operations Command as well as for increased investments in the nation’s ability to collect intelligence and to monitor its enemies. Obama is cutting the conventional military forces that have been the hallmark of America’s rise to superpower status at the expense of the elements that comprise the Obama Way of War — drones, “cyber” and man-hunting Special Operations Forces. Yet it is not clear how these tools will be used or if they will help the US address the core causes of terrorism.
Brennan’s nomination yesterday to head CIA was largely overlooked amidst the uproar over Hagel. An Obama loyalist who was the first to openly argue for the legality and morality of a drone-driven counter-terrorism strategy, Brennan is a career CIA agent who, according to a Washington Post profile, “has not had a disagreement” with Obama. That resonance implicitly aligns with Obama’s surgical approach to counter-terrorism. Though conventional forces are facing reductions in active duty troop numbers in all of the services, the US Special Operations Command will add 3,350 service members and civilians in FY 2013. The administration apparently views Special Forces and CIA-driven operations as the key to eliminating enemies of the United States. But killing terrorists is not in itself enough to eradicate terrorism. Drones and night raids do nothing to address the systematic issues that fuel extremist groups.
Over the past ten years, US Special Operations forces have been increasingly used as elite hunting machines that track down and eliminate terrorists. Yet this isn’t the only—or even the most powerful—use of these forces. Although the ‘direct approach’ of the SEALS and Delta Force garner most of the media attention, the ‘indirect approach’ of the Green Berets and psychological operations units, who engage directly with the communities that terrorists exploit, are much more useful for deciphering and addressing the core issues that promulgate sympathy to extremism.
In her recent testimony before the HASC subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Linda Robinson argues convincingly that the aspects of SOF that use ‘indirect’ methods need more reform and urgent attention than those that use ‘direct’ methods. She also points out the important link between ‘indirect’ efforts and those of conventional forces. By decreasing the size of our conventional forces and not re-invigorating ‘indirect’ SOF efforts, we risk focusing on the elimination of individuals rather than on eradicating the factors that breed them.