President Obama’s drone program should be subject to review and greater transparency.
Having inherited a global war in which his predecessor defined the world as a battlefield, President Obama entered office with a bold statement: “Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please…our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
In a departure from the rhetoric of his inaugural address, President Obama’s first term oversaw the dramatic increase in the number of drone strikes and a broadening of the pool of targets. Military invasion and the detention and interrogation program constituted political suicide for former President Bush. Drones have provided an alternative means of fighting enemies in the undeclared warzones of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and the self-designated authority of the White House to authorize “signature strikes” has meant that unidentified suspected terrorists can become targets based solely on their activities and location.
With the support of counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, President Obama now wields the omnipotent power to decide if suspected terrorists live or die. This past year, the prospect of Governor Mitt Romney inheriting such power drove the current administration into a frantic scurry to develop formal rules regulating the ad hoc drone program. With reelection ensured and this urgency diminished, the Justice Department refocused efforts on justifying current use of lethal force.
The recently released white paper states, “The United States retains its authority to use force against al-Qa’ida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities when it targets a senior operational leader of the enemy forces who is actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans.” In a pointed reference to the controversial killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the memo specifies, “The fact that such a person would also be a U.S. citizen would not alter this conclusion.” Armed with written legal approval to essentially kill anyone, anywhere, President Obama has resurrected Bush’s notion of a global battlefield.
This is not an argument against the use of drones in its entirety. Just as machine guns and tanks redefined the battlefields in World War I and II, drones have irreversibly altered the landscape of modern warfare. Technological progress is inevitable; problems arise when advancements in technology outpace the necessary policy adjustments. The relatively absent policy debate surrounding the use of drones has created a system that lacks accountability and transparency and is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests.
With the approaching withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan is a vital partner in the region. Despite a claimed shared goal of fighting terrorism, U.S.-Pakistani relations are strained at best, and often traitorous in reality. A recent statement by Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman suggested waning patience in Islamabad for America’s unilateral use of lethal force. While former president Pervez Musharraf was notorious for his behind-the-scenes endorsement and simultaneous public condemnation of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Ambassador Rehman assured her audience that “there is no policy of quiet complacency, no wink and nod” within the present Pakistani leadership. The manner in which drone strikes are executed is a blatant violation of Pakistani sovereignty and threatens an already tenuous alliance in a critical region.
It is commonly accepted by academics and policymakers alike that popular support is crucial in winning unconventional conflicts. The United States cannot win its war on terror solely by military superiority. The secrecy that shrouds the targeted killing program fuels anti-Americanism abroad. Having the capacity to kill enemy targets becomes irrelevant when doing so creates new enemies. By refusing to publicly account for those killed in drone strikes, the Obama administration allows its critics to inflate the number of civilian deaths.
On April 30, 2012, John Brennan expressed President Obama’s desire to be more open with the public about counterterrorism strategy. Nearly a decade after the first fatality from a drone strike, Brennan publicly acknowledged the United States’ use of drones in targeted strikes against al Qaeda.
What would have been newsworthy years earlier was greeted by the audience as “too little, too late.” While highlighting the extreme caution that is taken to avoid civilian casualties, Brennan neglected to address glaring episodes of failure. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was a sixteen-year old American citizen and accidental casualty of a U.S. drone strike. His death received limited media coverage and the Obama administration offered no apology.
Brennan’s claim that effective national security policy demands secrecy loses relevancy when the world knows of the U.S. targeted killing program. If security emanates from restraint, as President Obama attested in 2009, it is time to submit the drone program to a comprehensive policy review and public debate. Regulation of drone strikes and greater transparency regarding who is killed does not threaten U.S. security interests; rather it offers legitimacy to a highly controversial policy.
Ultimately, drones are weapons, not strategies of war. The Obama administration’s overreliance on drones has resulted in short-term successes, while stunting progress of the overall goal of eradicating extremist insurgency movements. President Obama’s decision to nominate John Brennan as the Director of the CIA signals a continued emphasis on covert killings. Already under fire for its apparent inability to foresee instability abroad, the Agency’s focus on the drone program diverts resources from traditional intelligence gathering and espionage missions aimed at predicting threats before they emerge.
Jessica Schulberg is a Master’s student at American University, studying international politics and journalism.
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