Amelia M. Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In its latest edition, New York Magazine published “The Obama History Project,” in which fifty-three "historians" (actually a mix of sociologists, political scientists, journalists, etc.) responded to a questionnaire about how President Obama and his administration will be viewed in twenty years.
Thirty were asked: “Which will prove to be more significant: the reduction of troops on the ground, or the increase in the use of military drones?” Though responses vary, fifteen believe the use of drones will be more significant in the long run, while ten believe it will be the reduction of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The remaining five respondents stated it will be both (three), neither (one), or that it cannot yet be determined (one). The historians responses are as follows:
Edward Baptist: The reduction of troops on the ground and the increase in the use of drones are two sides of the same coin.
Kai Bird: Unfortunately, the drone will forever be associated with the Obama presidency.
Gordon Chang: The reduction of ground troops should be commended but the increase of drones is directly connected. Americans don’t want further combat deaths but neither do they want to endorse the difficult but necessary effort to construct a new foreign-policy attitude that addresses the real grievances against the United States around the world.
Jonathan Darman: The increase in drones. Presidents will long note that a war-skeptic like Obama not only embraced drone warfare but paid essentially no price for it with his peace-loving base.
Mike Davis: Drones.
Mary Dudziak: Most significant because most enduring will be the way Obama has legitimated and institutionalized the use of drones, including for targeted killings, developing a secret set of rules about their use.
Joseph Ellis: The reduction of troops. Drones, in fact, have made that possible, but the absence of oversight will haunt Obama’s reputation unless he imposes safeguards in his last two years.
Annette Gordon-Reed: The increased use of military drones. We’ve reduced troops on the ground on many occasions throughout U.S. history. Using drones brings us into a Brave New World or a quite unsure new world.
Aram Goudsouzian: The ramped-up use of military drones may trouble future historians, but in the big-picture narrative of the wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration will be responsible for dialing down the troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for dealing with the unforeseen consequences of the military intervention and withdrawal.
Alexander Gourevitch: The reduction of troops on the ground. It set a new dynamic in play in Afghanistan and Iraq, while also freeing up troops for whatever wars and interventions the U.S. fights in the future. The drones are a terrifying image of techno-imperial domination, but they are not the core of American power abroad.
David Greenberg: Reduction of troops.
Thomas Holt: Drone warfare is likely to be the most unfortunate legacy of the Obama presidency (along with the expansion of the security state), having established precedents for future administrations, much as Bush’s aggressive military policies and “war on terror” left precedents for his.
Paul Kahn: The reduction of troops. Drones target individuals; troops fight wars.
David Kennedy: Drones. That’s where much of the future lies.
Charles Kesler: Troop reductions.
Stephen Kinzer: Another president might have decided to continue waging Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama may be remembered for being willing to face the reality of America’s defeat and the impossibility of long-term victory over locally based forces.
James Kloppenberg: That depends as much on the next two years as the next 20. We’ll find out whether we can actually withdraw those troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (which looks less likely every day) and whether the drone strikes actually diminish the appeal and power of violent Islamic fundamentalism or merely feed the anger that generated that radicalism in the first place. If our allies as well as our enemies in the Middle East continue funding for those radical groups, it’s hard to see that any amount of conventional force or high-tech bombing will weaken them. We’ve had 13 years in Afghanistan with almost nothing to show for the trillions we’ve spent, and we’ve made Iraq little or no better than it was under Saddam Hussein. Why Obama deserves the blame for those failures remains a mystery to me.
Matthew Lassiter: Military drones, although both would have happened regardless of the president.
Jackson Lears: The use of drones will have a long-term impact, encouraging ill-advised interventions by making them seem cost-free.
James Mann: The two are closely interrelated: The use of the drones enabled the reduction in troops, and the reduction in troops led to the use of the drones. The use of the drones has greater historical importance because it is a new form of warfare. But the reduction in troops carries far more practical and political importance: stationing American troops inside another country affects that country’s politics, more of its people, and more American military personnel.
Alfred McCoy: Obama will be remembered as the progenitor of drone warfare and cybercombat.
Lisa McGirr: The increase in military drones.
Miriam Pawel: Reduction of troops on the ground.
Kimberly Phillips-Fein: They’re flip sides of the same coin, in a way—but the use of military drones, which shifted the nature of warfare in ways that make it dangerously remote from human agency, will prove to be more significant.
Jeffrey Rosen: Drones.
Theda Skocpol: Wrapping up the ground war/occupation in Iraq was the most important Obama move, particularly if he continues to refuse pressures for a renewed ground invasion of that region, as I believe he will.
Nikhil Singh: Drones. The arrogation of the right of the U.S. president to kill anyone, anywhere in the world, without due process is an abomination and suggests a government that still regards itself as above and beyond the law: the definition of a rogue state. Moreover, detailed on-the-ground analysis by the human-rights group Reprieve points out that U.S. attempts to kill 41 individuals in drone attacks have resulted in over 1,100 deaths. Even if assassination by drone were acceptable, these numbers (or anything approaching them) suggest a level of operational failure, a lack of accountability, and a sheer disregard for human life that should not be.
Harry Stout: Reduction of troops on the ground.
Stephen Walt: Neither one. It doesn’t matter which weapons the United States decides to use to kill people it regards as enemies; the critical question is whether it continues to conduct such actions in many far-flung corners of the world. And Obama’s willingness to expand targeted killings by both drones and troops will be a dark shadow over a mostly positive legacy.
Robert Williams: Military drones. They will be emblematic of Obama’s colossal failure as president to make the country squarely confront or even really stop to think about what it meant to construct the 21st-century surveillance state along the identical patterns that had been laid out by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.