On the foreign policy front, the biggest development of 2011 was not the European crisis, which could still lead to a breakup of the common currency. It was not even the Arab spring. It was the development of the new American way of war, the unaccountable, secret, shadow operation being undertaken throughout the world in the name of fighting terrorism. Of all the “Nixon goes to China” moments the Obama Administration could have pursued, they actually followed through on this one, and it has had the intended effect. By engaging in a more aggressive covert war strategy than his predecessor, Obama has pushed to the right of Republicans while muting criticism from Democrats who don’t want to give their party leader a hard time, as long as there are no terrorist attacks.

Greg Miller reports on the signature element of this new American way of war, the unending drone strikes against Administration-designated enemies.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.

In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don’t match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

This is a very good story that highlights an almost criminal gap in our national conversation. We simply do not wrestle with the fact that this Administration has asserted a right to kill from a robot plane in the sky anyone they designate as a terrorist, without restrictions or checks on that authority. What’s more, they have put in place the infrastructure to carry out this alleged right, and once governments put in place that infrastructure, they usually feel obligated to use it.

What’s more, this secret war completely blurs the lines between the covert operations of the military and the covert operations of the CIA, as Miller discusses. The Pentagon becomes an impossibly large front organization for the real war games hiding in the shadows, without oversight, without publication.

Countries have begun to resist these programs. Pakistan kicked out the CIA drone program recently, leading to the Christmas drone truce. In Yemen, the strikes continue, but if elections yield a popular government, the same dynamic could result. The Administration relishes the thought of instituting a drone program in Somalia because they would have no government to deal with in approving it.

The drone program is an official secret in Washington, which conveniently resists open discussion about it. But we should have a conversation about the implications of an asserted right to kill anyone, including US citizens, from the sky without due process, at the whim of a star chamber of national security officials, without the input of any more accountable organization. It’s impossible not to acknowledge the slippery slope potential here. The alleged benefits of taking out Al Qaeda operatives pale in comparison to the possibility of a future with robot executioners displaying extreme prejudice on anyone a rogue CIA officer feels like silencing. It doesn’t matter whether this President’s intentions for the drone program are “circumscribed,” as senior officials claim in the piece. It matters whether the precedent is set.

UPDATE: A lonely voice:

The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence.

During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.

Dennis Blair doesn’t work in the Administration anymore. He was fired.