The news that U.S. forces have killed radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi marks an important threshold in the war on terror.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether this will constitute a demoralizing blow to the global terrorist network -- aside from bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Awlaki was probably the most prominent al Qaeda linked figure at large -- or whether it will simply inspire more "martyrs" to AQ's cause. And they can disagree about whether it was legal/ethical for Obama to target an American citizen who was not convicted in court, or whether the Obama administration is over-relying on targeted drone strikes and is insufficiently attentive to the downsides. My own sense is that this dramatic event will intensify the international debate about the drone strikes and that the clamor could come to resemble similar complaints about Gitmo and the interrogation of detainees in the first decade of the war.
But I don't think reasonable people can disagree about two other things: first, whether the Obama administration is treating this struggle as a war and second, whether the Obama administration is across-the-board too soft on terrorists. I should say, they can't disagree about this any longer since I understand why there were doubts before. Those doubts are hard to sustain now.
First, it is clear that the administration views this struggle as a war, whatever silly spin they tried out before regarding "overseas contingency operations" against "man-made disasters." This latest drone strike is only lawful under the laws of armed conflict (i.e. the laws of war), and even then only under the particular (expansive) interpretation of the legal regime that Bush invoked when he declared this a war. President Obama may be squeamish about being explicit and clear in his rhetoric, and he is certainly ambivalent about his role as wartime commander-in-chief and all of the associated responsibilities that entails, but he has repeatedly ordered kinetic action that can only be justified if one understands that America is at war with an adversary that does not resemble the adversaries we used to fight in so-called traditional wars. You can claim Obama should not be treating this as a war, and you can claim that Obama has not applied the war-frame consistently across the range of his policies. But there can be no doubt that, at least in this one area, Obama views this as a war: He has to, otherwise he has ordered unlawful actions.
Second, it is beyond dispute that in one important area Obama is tough on terrorists, arguably tougher in this one respect than Bush. Bush inaugurated the use of drone strikes in the war, but Obama dramatically ramped up the pace, has been willing to sustain this pace despite the corrosive effect it has had on our crucial partnership with Pakistan, and now has been willing to cross another symbolic threshold with today's strike. And as was the case with the bin Laden raid, today's strike reflects a military unilateralism that rivals anything done in the Bush era.
Obama is, in short, the Rambo of drone warfare and so it is not fair to accuse him of being soft on terrorists. This is a heavily caveated assessment, for one of the differences between Obama and Bush is that Bush developed a more coherent and systematic strategy and embedded the kinetic dimension within that larger strategy (reasonable people can debate how effective the Bush administration was in implementing that strategy). Obama's overall strategy is not as coherent and systematic (cf. Iraq policy, artificial and arbitrary timelines, inattention to mobilizing support, etc.). And on some of his terror policies, the incoherence does seem tied in part to what critics could consider "softness." But there is no doubt that Obama, as he promised during the 2008 campaign, has shown a vigor in deploying one important weapon in his arsenal: drone strikes.
This strike doesn't mean that Obama is invulnerable to campaign critiques about his handling of the war on terrorism, let alone critiques about his handling of national security more broadly. But it does mean that his Republican challenger will have to develop a sophisticated critique, and can't rely on the kinds of caricatures that were so effective against, say, Dukakis, or even Carter. There are plenty of areas where one could argue that Obama has been too "soft," but when it comes to kinetic military action, Obama presents a more complex picture and so will warrant a more nuanced critique.