Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: Is the United States running out of al-Qaeda kill targets? Has the cutting off of the serpents’ heads been more effective than President Barack Obama thought possible when he sanctioned drone missions? He was told this would be the best way of beating terrorism. And has this meant nothing in terms of the legacy Obama so keenly seeks in his final term?
In Washington, drone attacks remain a combined military counter-terrorism and even an ethical issue. That is why President Obama went on Thursday to the American National Defense University with a speech that fundamentally attempted to justify his global counter-terrorism policy. Given where he was speaking, he was addressing a captive and committed audience. For others, what he said does not necessarily get high-fives.
Firstly, Obama has struggled to define what the White House calls a ‘legal architecture’ for target lists. The only way to satisfy some, but not all, critics of the drone programme is to take it out of the exclusive hands of the CIA. If, for example, the drone targeting schedule were in two groups – the CIA and the military – there would have to be a certain higher level of transparency. Who gets lined up for a hit and what is done to limit the civilian casualties that have become a factor that makes a mockery of the claim that drones are pinpoint accuracy weapons? They are not, nor can they be.
Secondly, Obama signs off each strike. That means also that he has lethal powers that sit uneasily in the White House and have done so since Vietnam and carpet bombing.
Thirdly, the US is clearly rethinking its drone target policy, not because it has had an ethical revelation, but because major targets have been taken out and identifying new ones is becoming harder.
Fourthly, Obama and his advisers have both publicly and privately made a case for drone hits on the basis that they are cheap, they work and they do not cost American lives. Precision targeting is now questioned and so is the diplomatic cost of continuing with drone hits at the present level.
Many countries that once turned a blind eye to strikes in their homeland now object. This sets up a local political destabilising factor that makes it harder for America’s one time vital allies to continue to publicly do America’s bidding or at least assist what it once thought reasonable. Internal pressures and local political intrigue mean that US support in many countries is becoming harder to pin down and this includes the once willing passing of information on radical groups and personalities – candidates for drone attacks. So the ‘dangerous man is dead’ justification no longer remains an uncomplicated issue.
When, for example, attacks started in 2004 in Pakistan, there was just one that year. It took another four years for the attacks to reach double figures – 35 in 2008. Two years on, the strike figure was more than 100 into Pakistani territory. Since then the kill rate has reduced the so-called threat target list to just 13 this year so far.
As a security problem, the dispassionate would argue that it is a good problem to have. America must be a safe place. But ethically it is not and Obama knows this too well. This White House does not do any better than previous administrations on war ethics.
For example, when he arrived at the White House for his first term, Obama made a big deal about the wrongness of the Guantánamo detention centre on the island of Cuba where America incarcerated often dubiously come-by prisoners for indefinite detention and interrogation. He said he would close it down. He hasn’t.
A difficult aspect of Guantánamo for this lawyer President is the heavily classified 6,000-page analysis of the CIA’s interrogation programme and the refusal of requests that it should at the very least be partly released as a freedom of information matter. Difficult decisions for a President so vulnerable to an accusation that he’s a good talker but cannot get crucial issues through a po-faced Congress.
All this is why the National Defense University speech is so important. It will be the public definition of Obama’s most controversial military authority for the rest of his term. So far, not so good for a President who still hasn’t hit upon a legacy he wants in the book of American presidential history.