Carried out in northern Yemen, the U.S. attack also underscores Obama’s willingness to operate outside the defined U.S. combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan in waging what was once known as the global war on terror. Obama stopped using that term when he took office, arguing that it overstated the strength and scope of the U.S. enemy.
“This is further proof that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world,” Obama told a mostly military audience Friday at a farewell ceremony for Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. “We will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.”
But in relying on drones far more than his predecessor did in hunting down alleged terrorists, Obama is intensifying the war with al-Qaeda across a broader geographic area — and stretching the boundaries of its legal rationale.
Although citizenship is not a factor in determining whether a person can be lawfully killed under the laws of war, Obama has taken a clear step beyond the Bush war on terror in killing Aulaqi, who was never indicted for his alleged acts. A second U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, also died in the attack.
The Justice Department had written a secret memo authorizing the targeting of Aulaqi, following a broad review of the legal issues raised by a strike on a U.S. citizen, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said none of the lawyers involved in the process, from across the government, dissented.
A former constitutional law lecturer, Obama declined Friday to explain the legal justification for the strike. For a president who promised a more rigorous adherence to the law in his national security policy — as well as a more transparent administration — his silence drew concern and charges of hypocrisy.
“The president clearly has the background and intelligence to explain the legal theory justifying the attacks,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “His refusal to do so is a deliberate decision, and it is unwise because it undermines the justification for the attack and makes it open to misinterpretation by other governments seeking to expand their own operations against perceived terrorists.”
Obama emerged from a crowded Democratic field in 2008 on the basis, in part, of his opposition to the Iraq war.
Although he pledged to escalate operations against al-Qaeda if elected, Obama was perceived by many voters as the anti-war candidate, an image he buttressed with a sharp critique of President George W. Bush’s national security regimen.