Obama’s Drone Speech Misses the Mark

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President Barack Obama’s speech on May 23 should be commended for acknowledging that the United States must shift away from a perpetual state of war against terror, renewing his commitment to close Guantanamo, and promising to provide greater clarity regarding when and how drones can be used overseas. However, Obama did not go far enough in addressing the most worrisome aspects of the current drone campaign, nor did he assure observers that greater transparency and accountability would indeed be forthcoming. In fact, when the language is parsed carefully, his speech could pave the way for an even more expansive use of unmanned aircraft strikes in the future due to the omission of previous White House claims that drones target only the most senior al Qaeda leaders. 

The development of new "presidential policy guidance" on when the United States can use drone strikes could be a move in the right direction, yet that a more precise legal architecture has been developed for the use of unmanned aerial strikes means that they will continue and possibly assume even greater prominence in the fight against terror. Even more disturbing is that such guidance remains classified — a decision that undercuts the value of this directive. A primary criticism of the current drone program is the lack of transparency regarding who is being targeted and why, whether the threat the strikes pose is truly imminent (and how that is defined), and upon what intelligence such decisions are made. The president’s speech does little to assuage these concerns. 

Obama did not declare victory over violent extremism, but indicated that the task of tracking down terrorists and weakening their networks would start shifting back to law enforcement and intelligence agencies rather than outright military mobilization. This might be the right move — though perhaps a bit belated — but no one in the administration seems to be asking the tough questions about whether the strategy of targeted killings is the right one to pursue. Relying on drone strikes to take out al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps Mali is the current modus operandi to deal with acute threats, but there is insufficient consideration of the real cost of these attacks when mistakes inevitably occur, innocent lives are lost, the credibility of allies are undermined, and local communities are alienated.

Recently, several former high-ranking military officials have started asking these questions, including retired General Stanley McChrystal and General James Cartwright, who argue that an overreliance on drone strikes can lead to dangerous blowback. While drones may have been effective in taking out some key militant leaders, the environment has changed and now the costs of such strikes outweigh the potential benefits. The loss of civilian life in an active combat theater is felt by military leadership and troops on the ground, but when drones are operated by joystick from Reno, Nevada, the distance risks impairing military and political decision-makers from understanding the complex web of economic, political, and tribal dynamics at play in these countries. It becomes a cold, clinical procedure, and when there is no public acknowledgement of the loss of life and property, it is even easier to be unfazed by the tragic mistakes that are made and civilians who die as a result.

An unclassified version of the new policy guidance indicates that the president envisions an eventual shift of drone operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense, which is presumed to give Congress greater oversight of the program. Yet, there is little reason to think the Pentagon will be much more forthcoming in disclosing information and little reason to believe the Pentagon would manage the drone campaign in a more restrained fashion. Mostly, the change reflects an overall shift to move the CIA back to its original mandate of intelligence gathering and strategic analysis, rather than tactical hunting for bad guys.

The president gave few specifics, but stated that only individuals posing a consistent and imminent threat to U.S. lives and who cannot be apprehended would be targeted. That parameter is not so different from the original directive developed by the Justice Department that was ultimately made public this past year due to congressional pressure. The president did not state that signature strikes — those conducted based on an individual’s pattern of behavior rather than identity — have been taken off the table. That may be part of the classified document, and if so, it would be an important step to limit the use of drones. But civilian causalities and negative blowback from U.S. strikes will continue even by rolling back the expansive use of signature strikes. Without clearly defining what constitutes "imminent" and what is considered a threat to U.S. lives (as opposed to U.S. interests), it is hard to see what has changed.

The president’s speech repeatedly made the point that the United States always prefers to apprehend and prosecute suspected terrorists and that it is only when local authorities are incapable of making arrests that airstrikes, whether by drones or piloted aircraft, are the best solution. That may be the policy on paper, but it does not always play out in reality. In Yemen, where the transitional government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is actively cooperating with the United States, it is hard to take seriously the administration’s claim that all efforts were made to arrest and apprehend suspected terrorists. There have been several reports of people the United States has targeted who are actually quite well-known figures in their community who arguably could have been taken into custody. Farea al-Muslimi, the Yemeni activist who recently testified in Congress on the use of drones, stressed that Hammed al-Radmi, who was hit by a U.S. drone in his village, could have been arrested since everyone knew exactly who he was, where he lived, and with whom he was affiliated. He was not hiding in a secure location; in fact, he engaged regularly with local officials.

Yemen presents the clearest example of the costs of using drone strikes as a central component of a counterterrorism strategy. Decisions of who to target are made based, in part, on assessments from Yemeni and Saudi security and intelligence sources, but such agencies have their own agendas to advance. Many accounts have come to the surface of instances in which targets for U.S. drone strikes allegedly resulted from internal political squabbles, score-settling, and intentional faulty intelligence rather than direct threats to U.S. national security. Former U.S. officials involved with the drone program have even admitted that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh intentionally manipulated the United States in its war on terror in order to settle ongoing, internal power struggles.

The best long-term strategy to deal with threats emanating from Yemeni soil is to strengthen the Yemeni military and security apparatus to do exactly that. For the past decade, the United States has been providing military assistance to Yemen, which started in earnest after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. U.S. security assistance should expand beyond a focus on training and equipping elite counterterrorism units that are dispatched to raid suspected terrorists. Rather, the United States should institute a long-term, comprehensive security assistance program. The United States is already playing an important role by providing technical advice and guidance during Yemen’s military restructuring process, a core component of Yemen’s transition process, but more could be done to ensure that Yemeni military forces can secure their own territory and address violent extremism before it threatens Americans. This is a sustainable approach to minimizing anti-American violence, and this is where the United States should be putting its money and effort. Drone strikes should be considered one tactic, used extremely rarely, in an overall strategy that addresses the full range of threats.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the current administration will make such an investment. The president’s preferred course of foreign policy over the past five years — as evidenced by the expedited troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, initial reticence to support the NATO campaign in Libya, and an allergic reaction to supporting the opposition fighters in Syria — indicates that he prefers a minimalist approach to keep U.S. engagement in the Middle East at arm’s length. The president’s justification of drone strikes fits perfectly within this mindset. Compared with sending U.S. troops to a place like Yemen or Somalia, administration officials will justify drones as a lower-risk, lower-cost, and lower-effort alternative. But no one is advocating a boots-on-the-ground solution, and drones in and of themselves are not a panacea for defeating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or elsewhere.

Obama said "our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone," and yet this seems to be the overwhelming focus of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. He also calls on Americans to be patient and support the transitions in the Arab world. That is exactly the right message, but the United States could be doing more to support that objective. Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric, the administration has fallen short in terms of prioritizing and operationalizing that commitment throughout every level of government; this is what is needed, not only to help ensure the success of nascent democratic transitions, but because it ultimately benefits U.S. security needs as well. Until there is a more robust and high-level commitment from the president and his administration to support these transitions with a holistic approach to political, economic, and security assistance, we will listen to beautifully-crafted speeches and remain optimistic, but fight the same fight for some time to come.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel.

Photo credit: The White House

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