America is a prisoner of the War on Terror, which military and diplomatic policy makers once called the Long War.
The Obama administration, in an effort to create some psychological breathing space between itself and the minions of former president George W. Bush, refer to the 12-year effort as the War on al Qaeda.
A dramatic difference between President Barack Obama's war and Bush's is the number of boots on the ground. US troops pulled out of Iraq in 2011. And Obama has pledged that the war in Afghanistan will end in 2014. Still, thousands of civilian contractors work — and presumably will continue to work — in both countries. Their jobs range from construction to diplomatic security. The State Department alone employs 10,000.
The withdrawal of uniformed combat troops is, of course, welcome. It was a fundamental promise of Obama's 2008 election and his 2012 re-election. As long as the president sticks to his timetable, he enjoys considerable room for political maneuver.
Although the killing of Osama bin Laden took place 18 months ago, that death and the continued success in hunting down other al Qaeda leaders has made Obama almost immune to Republican criticism on this front. It has also made things immeasurably more difficult for Democrats who wonder where this war is taking the nation, and for constitutionalists who fear that our liberties are being eroded.
When it comes to the "long war" on al Qaeda terrorists, the tenor and tone coming from the Obama White House is more palatable when compared to Bush. But the fact remains that the war on whatever we want to call it is being waged by the same rules employed by Bush, whose national-security policies Obama follows in spirit and in fact, with some merely cosmetic variations.
This was made painfully clear in the confirmation hearing of CIA director-designate John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. Despite some limited but thoughtful questioning — especially from the two senators from Maine, newly elected independent Angus King and veteran Republican Susan Collins — Brennan emerged unchallenged and unscathed.
Given Brennan's past involvement in the executive machinery that oversaw waterboarding during the Bush years, and his current status as the man who orchestrates the drone kill lists for Obama (including those for US citizens), that's an escape worthy of a Hollywood drama — or at least a Frontline documentary.
The Brennan hearing reveals the depth of legislative subservience to executive power. Fifty years ago, congressional kowtowing to the White House helped ease the escalation of the Vietnam War. Today, unquestioned obedience to — or at least the passive acceptance of — Obama's assertion of almost unlimited powers could lead to an even more unstable international order, and a further erosion of liberty at home.
The disturbing paradox of Obama's War on al Qaeda is that the more success it seems to achieve, as measured by killing key operatives with pilotless drones, the more it spreads. Today the battlefields extend beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to include Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Mali.
It is time for official Washington — the White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans — to answer some essential questions: what is this war we are fighting? What are the objectives? How do we measure success? Do the tactical gains of successful drone attacks lead to an unstable international order more threatening than today's?
Simultaneously, America should be asking itself: can we trust Washington to tell us if this war is won? And how much longer should the president — any president — be given the unsupervised power to wage war at home and abroad as he sees fit?
This is the first of two related editorials. Next week: drones, the White House, the Constitution, and American liberty.