THE president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.
Mr. Obama decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Ironically, the president used the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as an occasion to articulate his philosophy of war. He made it very clear that his opposition to the Iraq war didn’t mean that he embraced pacifism — not at all.
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” the president told the Nobel committee — and the world. “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”
If those on the left were listening, they didn’t seem to care. The left, which had loudly condemned George W. Bush for waterboarding and due process violations at Guantánamo, was relatively quiet when the Obama administration, acting as judge and executioner, ordered more than 250 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, during which at least 1,400 lives were lost.
Mr. Obama’s readiness to use force — and his military record — have won him little support from the right. Despite countervailing evidence, most conservatives view the president as some kind of peacenik. From both the right and left, there has been a continuing, dramatic cognitive disconnect between Mr. Obama’s record and the public perception of his leadership: despite his demonstrated willingness to use force, neither side regards him as the warrior president he is.
Mr. Obama had firsthand experience of military efficacy and precision early in his presidency. Three months after his inauguration, Somali pirates held Richard Phillips, the American captain of the Maersk Alabama, hostage in the Indian Ocean. Authorized to use deadly force if Captain Phillips’s life was in danger, Navy SEALs parachuted to a nearby warship, and three sharpshooters, firing at night from a distance of 100 feet, killed the pirates without harming Captain Phillips.
“GREAT job,” Mr. Obama told William H. McRaven, the then vice admiral who oversaw the daring rescue mission and later the Bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The SEAL rescue was the president’s first high-stakes decision involving the secretive counterterrorism units. But he would rely increasingly upon their capacities in the coming years.
Soon after Mr. Obama took office he reframed the fight against terrorism. Liberals wanted to cast anti-terrorism efforts in terms of global law enforcement — rather than war. The president didn’t choose this path and instead declared “war against Al Qaeda and its allies.” In switching rhetorical gears, Mr. Obama abandoned Mr. Bush’s vague and open-ended fight against terrorism in favor of a war with particular, violent jihadists.
The rhetorical shift had dramatic — non-rhetorical — consequences. Compare Mr. Obama’s use of drone strikes with that of his predecessor. During the Bush administration, there was an American drone attack in Pakistan every 43 days; during the first two years of the Obama administration, there was a drone strike there every four days. And two years into his presidency, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president was engaged in conflicts in six Muslim countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. The man who went to Washington as an “antiwar” president was more Teddy Roosevelt than Jimmy Carter.
Consider the comparative speed with which Mr. Obama and his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, opted for military intervention in various conflicts. Hesitant, perhaps, because of the Black Hawk Down disaster in Somalia in 1993, Mr. Clinton did nothing to stop what, at least by 1994, was evidently a genocidal campaign in Rwanda. And Bosnia was on the verge of genocidal collapse before Mr. Clinton decided — after two years of dithering — to intervene in that troubled area in the mid-1990s. In contrast, it took Mr. Obama only a few weeks to act in Libya in the spring of 2011 when Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened to massacre large portions of the Libyan population. Mr. Obama went to the United Nations and NATO and set in motion the military campaign — roundly criticized by the left and the right — that toppled the Libyan dictator.
None of this should have surprised anyone who had paid close attention to what Mr. Obama said about the use of force during his presidential campaign. In an August 2007 speech on national security, he put the nation — and the world — on alert: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he said, referring to Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan. He added, “I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.”
That’s about as clear a statement as can be. But Republicans and Democrats blasted Mr. Obama with equal intensity for suggesting that he would authorize unilateral military action in Pakistan to kill Bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a Democratic rival for the presidential nomination, said, “I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that.” Mitt Romney, vying for the Republican nomination, accused Mr. Obama of being a “Dr. Strangelove” who is “going to bomb our allies.” John McCain piled on: “Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan?”
Once in office, Mr. Obama signed off on a large increase in the number of C.I.A. officers on the ground in Pakistan and an intensified campaign of drone warfare there; he also embraced the use of drones or covert military units in places like Somalia and Yemen, where the United States was not engaged in traditional land warfare. (Mr. Bush, who first deployed C.I.A.-directed drones, did not do so on the scale that Mr. Obama did; and Mr. Obama, of course, had the benefit of significantly improved, more precise, drone technology.)
Nothing dramatizes Mr. Obama’s willingness to use hard power so well as his decision to send Navy SEAL Team 6 to Abbottabad, to take out Bin Laden. Had this risky operation failed, it would most likely have severely damaged Mr. Obama’s presidency — and legacy.
Mr. Obama’s advisers worried that a botched raid would disturb — or destroy — the United States-Pakistan relationship, which would make the war in Afghanistan more difficult to wage since so much American matériel had to travel through Pakistani airspace or ground routes.
The risks were enormous. A helicopter-borne assault could easily turn into a replay of the debacle in the Iranian desert in 1980, when Mr. Carter authorized a mission to release the American hostages in Tehran that ended with eight American servicemen dead and zero hostages freed.
SOME of Mr. Obama’s top advisers worried that the intelligence suggesting that Bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound was circumstantial and much too flimsy to justify the risks involved. The deputy C.I.A. director, Michael J. Morell, had told the president that in terms of available data points, “the circumstantial evidence of Iraq having W.M.D. was actually stronger than evidence that Bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound.”
At the final National Security Council meeting to consider options connected to Bin Laden’s possible presence in the Abbottabad compound, Mr. Obama gave each of his advisers an opportunity to speak. When the president asked, “Where are you on this? What do you think?” so many officials prefaced their views by saying, “Mr. President, this is a very hard call,” that laughter erupted, providing a few moments of levity in the otherwise tense, two-hour meeting.
Asked his view, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said, “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go.”
For the president, however, the potential rewards clearly outweighed all risk involved. “Even though I thought it was only 50-50 that Bin Laden was there, I thought it was worth us taking a shot,” he said. “And I said to myself that if we have a good chance of not completely defeating but badly disabling Al Qaeda, then it was worth both the political risks as well as the risks to our men.”
The following morning, on Friday, April 29, at 8:20 a.m. in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, Mr. Obama gathered his key national security advisers in a semicircle around him and told them simply, “It’s a go.”
Three days later Bin Laden was dead.
The Bin Laden mission will surely resurface in the coming election; the campaign has already produced a 17-minute documentary that showcases the raid. This, combined with Mr. Obama’s record of military accomplishment, will make it hard for Mitt Romney to convince voters that Mr. Obama is a typical, weak-on-national-security Democrat. And, if Mr. Romney tries to portray Mr. Obama this way, he will very likely trap himself into calling for a war with Iran, which many Americans oppose.
Mr. Obama plans to be in Chicago for the NATO summit meeting in late May, just as the election campaign heats up. He’ll arrive knowing that the United States and Afghanistan have already agreed to a long-term strategic partnership that is likely to involve thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan, in advisory roles, after combat operations end in 2014. (The details of the agreement are still being negotiated.) This should inoculate the president from would-be Romney charges that he is “abandoning” Afghanistan.
None of this suggests that Mr. Obama is trigger-happy or that, when considering the use of force, he is more likely to trust his gut than counsel provided during structured, often lengthy, deliberations with his National Security Council and other advisers. In instances in which the risks seem too great (military action against Iran) or the payoff too murky (some form of military intervention in Syria), Mr. Obama has repeatedly held America’s fire.
This said, it is clear that he has completely shaken the “Vietnam syndrome” that provided a lens through which a generation of Democratic leaders viewed military action. Still, the American public and chattering classes continue to regard the president as a thinker, not an actor; a negotiator, not a fighter.
What accounts for the strange, persistent cognitive dissonance about this president and his relation to military force? Does it stem from the campaign in which Mrs. Clinton repeatedly critiqued Mr. Obama for his stated willingness to negotiate with Iran and Cuba? Or is it because he can never quite shake the deliberative tone and mien of the constitutional law professor that he once was? Or because of his early opposition to the Iraq war? Whatever the causes, the president has embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink, yet many continue to see him as the negotiator in chief rather than the warrior in chief that he actually is.
Peter L. Bergen is a director of the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”