NATO drone
One of the most startling revelations: any military-aged male who dies in a drone strike is automatically labeled a "militant." Northrop Grumman Corp.

President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is upending a basic maxim of presidential politics, the idea that Democrats are weak on defense. Backed by a muscular interpretation of executive power, the Obama administration has made armed drones the centerpiece of its counter-terror arsenal, stepping up strikes in Pakistan and expanding the campaign into Yemen and Somalia.

Despite being overwhelmingly popular with the American public, the approach comes with a cost, as an extraordinarily illuminating account in Tuesday's New York Times shows. Jo Becker and Scott Shane's deeply reported piece shows the president carefully weighing when to authorize drones to rain missiles on suspected militants, but it also shows how Obama has become entangled in a bloody campaign in which the targets -- our enemy in the ongoing battle against terror -- are often ambiguous.

Who Is A Militant?

In touting the effectiveness of drone strikes, the administration has frequently claimed a lack of civilian casualties -- a position that is belied by independent reporting suggesting far more civilian deaths than the U.S. admits to. The New York Times offers a reason for this disconnect: Any military-aged male who perishes in a strike is counted as a militant, a classification system that bolsters Obama's push to launch strikes only when there is near certainty that noncombatants won't be killed.

That mirrors a larger debate over the use of a disputed type of operation, a signature strike, in which the supporting intelligence is suspects' patterns of behavior and movement. (A personality strike targets a specific high-value target.) Obama has authorized signature strikes in Pakistan and has faced pressure from the Central Intelligence Agency to allow them in Yemen.

An Endless Kill List?

That doesn't mean Obama is launching drone attacks indiscriminately. The administration regularly summons officials to go over a list of possible targets in Yemen and Somalia and then submit their recommendations to the president, who personally gives the green light to strikes in Yemen and Somalia -- two countries where he has expanded the drone campaign in response to burgeoning radical movements -- and some in Pakistan.

Congress lent the legal justification for drone strikes with an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, issued shortly after 9/11, that allowed the commander-in-chief to target al Qaeda and its affiliates. As Obama has embraced and enlarged that power, controversially launching a strike on al Qaeda cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the prospect of an open-ended war looms.

One guy gets knocked off, and the guy's driver, who's No. 21, becomes 20 [on the list]? former White House chief of staff William Daley said to the Times. At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?

'The Only Game In Town'

The emphasis on drone strikes has reportedly fractured the Obama administration, with some advisers worrying that a relentless focus on drone warfare is detracting from efforts to shape an overarching strategy in the war on terror. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized a drones-only approach, Becker and Shane write, while former Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair drew parallels to another murky, complicated war.

The steady refrain in the White House was, 'This is the only game in town' - reminded me of body counts in Vietnam, Blair told the Times.