Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges

An earlier version of this appeared in The National last week.

It was a “season of fear,” he said. Government trimming facts and evidence “to fit ideological predispositions”; making “decisions based on fear rather than foresight; setting aside principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford”. “In other words,” he concluded, “we went off course”.

We “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values”, he said. Institutions will have to be updated with “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.”

It was a fine speech: thoughtful, bold, idealistic. US president Barack Obama delivered it at the National Archives in Washington, on May 21, 2009.

Last Thursday, when President Obama again addressed the question of national security, he sounded equally high-minded. But where in his first speech he had to address the excesses of his predecessor; this time he had his own to consider. The most serious of these were born of Obama’s inability to deliver fully on promises he made in 2009.

At the National Archives speech, Obama had vowed to end torture, shut down CIA black sites, and close Guantanamo. It was the clean break he had promised his base. But faced with a Republican backlash, Obama caved. Torture and black sites were abolished, but Guantanamo remained. Torture memos were released, but torturers roamed free. And to shield himself against charges of weakness, Obama escalated the covert war.

The war since its inception was governed as much by security considerations as by political expediency. By eschewing large-scale military deployment in favor of drones and Special Forces, and through aggressive prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, Obama was able to keep his actions secret, releasing himself from domestic political constraints, claiming successes where they occurred, disowning failures.

But it is the manner in which Obama kept promises that are more troubling. In two important investigations into the deliberations behind the administration’s use of lethal force – Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture (2012) and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife (2013) – we learn that in its first term, the administration repeatedly resolved the political complications of detaining terrorism suspects by opting to have them killed.

There was also a legal rationale: the Geneva conventions forbid torture under any circumstances; but killing is permitted in war. Covered by the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that Congress had granted his predecessor, Obama dealt with the troubling questions of detention, jurisdiction and torture by ensuring that none would be captured.

Equally dangerous was the administration’s decision to expand lethal operations beyond declared warzones. George W. Bush restored the license to kill which the CIA had lost in the mid-70s after the Church Committee investigations revealed widespread abuses. Obama formalized and expanded the agency’s paramilitary function and resurrected the Vietnam-era practice of using Special Forces as death squads to “neutralize” enemies.

The infamous Operation Phoenix had resulted in over 26,000 assassinations in Vietnam, leading Congress to place limits on military action outside declared warzones. The Obama administration maneuvered around such restrictions by putting JSOC forces temporarily under CIA command, using its “Title 50” authority to act globally. The authority had been granted the CIA with purely intelligence gathering activities in mind; Obama used it to sanction lethal military operations from Pakistan, Yemen to Somalia.

The confluence of secrecy, technology and Special Forces diminished the costs of foreign intervention, releasing the president from the complications of congressional approval and oversight. The approach served Obama well. Defence, putatively, is Democrats’ Achilles Heel; but in the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney could find no chinks in Obama’s armor.  If Obama is volunteering to relinquish such powers, then this must be welcomed.

In his speech, Obama raised all the right questions; but his answers were inadequate. To the extent that there were practical proposals, they remained sketchy. He rightly warned against the dangers of “perpetual war”, but promised to continue his own indefinitely. He proposed transferring drones from the CIA to the military, subjecting them to the minimum constraints of military rules of engagement; but this was a “preference” rather than a guarantee.  The president proposed granting Congress the authority to oversee drone strikes, establishing special courts to evaluate and authorize targets. But no concessions were made to international laws forbidding extrajudicial killing.

The new Presidential Policy Guidance shows a narrower targeting criteria that in principle should end so-called “signature strikes”—strikes that kill on the basis of suspicion alone. But considering that the administration had already been describing its targeting criteria in the same terms, there were reasons to doubt its sincerity—doubts that were soon confirmed when officials told the New York Times that, Obama’s promises notwithstanding, the administration had no intention to end signature strikes. The administration’s description of what constitutes an “imminent” threat also remains expansive.

Given the contradictions and ambiguity of Obama’s statements, it seemed that the public introspection was necessitated less by moral anguish than by the administration’s need, amid protest and scandal, to persuade supporters of the inherent morality of his actions. But the greater shifts mandating the change in tone have occurred elsewhere.

In the past year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there has been a considerable reduction in the number of drone strikes in Pakistan. Where there had been 128 in the year 2010; by 2012, the number had fallen to 44. This year, there have been 12. In Yemen, too, the number of strikes has fallen. The Obama administration might offer this as evidence of its sincerity in scaling down the war; but the actual causes are to be found in the targeted countries.

The initial drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan were carried out with the approval of their respective governments. However, both retained the right to call halt. In 2002, Ali al Saleh exercised this right after he felt slighted by Paul Wolfowitz following the first ever drone strike. In a TV appearance, the then Deputy Defence Secretary revealed that the attack, which the Yemeni president had claimed as his, was actually carried out by the US. There wouldn’t be another strike on Yemeni oil while Bush remained in office.

Pervez Musharraf too was unwilling to grant the US carte blanche. Between June 2004, when the first drone struck Pakistan, and August 2008, when Musharraf stepped down as president, there were 17 such attacks. But the war escalated sharply once the pliant Zardari government assumed office, with 351 attacks being launched to date, including many “signature strikes”.

The war in Pakistan was scaled down only after tensions emerged between the US and the Pakistani military forcing the Zardari government to reconsider its cooperation.  Around the same time, in Yemen, war escalated as the Saleh government was weakened by protests against his authoritarian rule. The number of attacks dropped only after stability returned to Yemen.

With a strong government poised to assume office in Pakistan, one that takes a dim view of foreign intervention, it was inevitable that US would have to reappraise its policy. This is what Obama set out to do last week.

Despite its equivocations, however, Obama’s speech was a significant one. Its commitment to de-escalation might have been rhetorical; but presidential rhetoric shapes discourse, creates expectations. In making rhetorical concessions, it adds ballast to the political sentiment that forced it in the first place. Obama’s speech was a response to years of campaigning, in the US and in affected countries. He was ventriloquizing the concerns of others; trimming sails to winds already changed. One must give him credit without forgetting that he is a beneficiary of change acting as its agent.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s The Road to Jerusalem: American Neoconservatism and the Iraq War will be published by the Edinburgh University Press. He edits

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