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Late Monday evening, President Obama signed off on the operation, and hours later about two dozen Navy SEALs parachuted into the predawn darkness of the Somali hinterland. Once on the ground, they hiked for nearly two miles, then burst into the Somalis’ encampment, killed all nine captors, and freed the hostages. There were no casualties among the SEALs. “They hit all their marks,” says one senior administration official. “It was the stuff of Entebbe.”

The Somali raid, for all of its Hollywood drama, is only one of hundreds of daring missions conducted by elite U.S. commandos in recent years. Navy SEALs and other special operators, with the encouragement of President Obama, have become a primary weapon in “denied areas” like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their ability to go after terrorists, pirates, or other criminals with stealth, precision, and lethal force is in line with Obama’s basic approach to the shadow wars. From the earliest days of his administration he began pushing his generals to pursue missions that were surgical and narrowly tailored to clearly defined objectives—whether rescuing hostages or protecting well-defined American interests. What he did not want to do was open up new fronts in the war on terror or get drawn into fighting local insurgencies around the world.

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    The intelligent approach, if one is to fight shadow wars, is to skirt the larger issues. Shadow wars can quickly blow...
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