He was just a skinny 22-year-old seemingly no different from so many college kids back in 1983 – writing ponderous pieces for a student newspaper about the nuclear freeze movement and railing against "the military-industrial interests" with their "billion-dollar erector sets" -- under the headline "Breaking the War Mentality."
But this one kid at Columbia University actually was different. Three decades later, Barack Obama is now in his second term as president – commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, with broad executive power over the American way of war.
And the signature piece of his Obama's national security policy, increasingly, is something that not only would have shocked his beer buddies in back in Morningside Heights. It has also surprised and dismayed some of his most ardent political supporters in the 2010s who voted for a rollback of the militarism and imperial overreach of the Bush-Cheney years:
It is a full-throated embrace of flying billion-dollar "erector sets" – drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, that can rain down death and destruction on targets halfway across the globe with zero immediate risk to American life.
Obama's expanded, top-secret drone war has allowed the U.S. to kill high-level members of al-Qaeda without the risks that ground troops have faced in Iraq or Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been fighting more than 11 years.
But in doing so, a president who promised "the most open and transparent administration in history" has gone to Nixonian lengths to hide its actions from the American people and from Congress. He's ordered missile attacks on countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with which the nation is not at war – drone strikes that in addition to its targets have killed as many as 1,000 innocent civilians, including women and children.
And according to a White House white paper obtained by NBC News, Obama has claimed a power never even envisioned during the waterboarding-drenched years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney – the ability to order the assassination of an American citizen believed to be engaged with al-Qaeda at a high level, even if that citizen is not currently plotting against the U.S.
Just two weeks after a triumphant second inauguration, the Obama administration was in a rare defensive posture on Thursday, releasing to Congress its once-secret rationale for its ability to kill American al-Qaeda members, as Obama's pick to run the CIA -- counterterrorism chief John Brennan -- defended the drone policies. His hearing was interrupted by protests that harkened back to the Bush era – such as a woman holding aloft a sign, "Drones Fly Children Die."
The irony boggles the mind. After a long barrage from the right flank accusing the 44th president of everything from Kenyan citizenship to plotting a socialist takeover, will this become the scandal of Barack Obama second term…the betrayal of his liberal ideals?
"As successor to George W. Bush, Obama is continuing Bush's wars by other means," Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel who's now a Boston University professor of international relations and frequent critic of U.S. militarism, told me. "Rather than invading and occupying countries, he relies on alternative methods, with missile-firing drones his preferred weapon of war."
In doing so, Obama's also sparked a new civil war – among the American left. On Twitter and other venues, liberals who just weeks ago seemed united in joy over the president's re-election have been at each other's virtual throats, in a war of words pitting old-school anti-war activists against Obama partisans inclined to support the president -- even for policies they surely would have excoriated if pursued under Bush and Cheney.
How did we get to this strange place?
Steve Clemons, a foreign policy expert affiliated with the centrist New America Foundation, said the drone campaign started as a way for Obama to prove as toughness toward terrorism while he ended the Iraq War and strived – not successfully yet – to wind down the conflict in Afghanistan. But over time, the power to kill alleged terrorists at no cost to American life has lured Obama, the Pentagon, and the CIA to expand the campaign to new lands and to lower-level operatives.
"There's an ease of doing it that has become too habitual – and I think there's a risk of major mistakes," Clemons said.
I agree. It seems that a tipping point was crossed a long time ago, in a world where flying U.S. death robots are now whipping up more anti-Americanism than can – or should -- be zapped with Hellfire missiles. And I worry that Obama and his ambitions have been sucked into an even more powerful vortex, where every international problem looks like a nail that can only be hammered down by our "billion-dollar erector sets."