Falling Short: Obama’s Speech on Drones

President Obama’s address last week was a response to mounting public criticisms of U.S. counterterrorism and drone warfare policies and an indication of the importance of public engagement on these issues. The New York Times described the speech as “momentous turning point” toward ending the perpetual war of the past 12 years. Let’s hope that’s true, but there is still a very long way to go. Some of the steps outlined by the President and his advisers represent modest steps in the right direction, but other aspects of White House policy remain deeply troubling and suggest a possible expansion of the scope of drone warfare.

The President’s speech was accompanied by briefings from senior officials and a White House factsheet. The briefings confirmed what private researchers have reported, that the number of drone strikes has been declining recently. The White House provided no numbers, but figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show the number of strikes in Pakistan declining from 128 in 2010 to 48 in 2012. In Yemen the number of estimated strikes rose from 13 in 2011 to 26 in 2012. In both countries the number of strikes so far in 2013 is lower than in past years.

The White House did not explain the reasons for the downward trend, but the President claims that the criteria for targeting are now “heavily constrained.” He issued a Presidential Policy Guidance last week to codify strict guidelines of oversight and accountability for future drone strikes, but he provided no details. The administration continues to refuse demands from Amnesty International and other human rights groups for public disclosure of these criteria.

It was encouraging to hear Obama declare his intention to end the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the legislation adopted by Congress immediately after 9/11 that permits the use of “all necessary military means” without temporal or geographic limits. This was the first time a President stated unequivocally, as the New York Times noted, that “the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.” Obama declared,

I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.

Also important were Obama’s renewed call for closing Guantanamo, his decision to lift the moratorium on transferring Yemeni detainees, and his intention to try remaining suspects in civilian or military courts. As columnist Joe Nocera notes, however, Obama could have done much more over the past four years to close the facility and end the continuing abuses there.

Very worrisome was the administration’s expansive redefinition of who could be targeted by drone strikes. Obama made no reference to his previous claim to strike only “senior operational leaders.” He probably knows better than to repeat that claim, following recent disclosures from journalists Peter Bergen and Jonathan Landay that less than two per cent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan actually fit that description. The President spoke instead of attacking “those who want to kill us.” The White House factsheet said that lethal force could be used against “a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” These are extremely broad criteria that must be challenged.

The President’s speech and the limited disclosures of last week fall far short of what is needed. More public engagement on these issues will be needed. We should support the President’s declared intention to end to the war on terror, but we should also press for greater transparency and demand an end to illegal targeted killing.

‘Carte Blanche’ for Unlimited War?

At an extraordinary hearing on Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee debated whether the policy of open-ended U.S. military operations around the world known popularly as the ‘war on terror’ should come to an end, or should continue indefinitely.

The focus of the hearing was the innocuously named Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF was the Congressional resolution adopted immediately after 9/11 authorizing “all necessary military means” against those who planned or aided the terror attacks, later amended to allow strikes against Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” The AUMF language is used by the Obama administration to justify its policy of drone warfare, which has killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years. It is also the basis for a major expansion of U.S. covert military operations over the past 12 years.

During last week’s hearing Michael Sheehan, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said that military operations against alleged terrorists would likely continue for “at least 10 to 20 years.” Robert Taylor, the acting general counsel of the Pentagon, said the AUMF allows military action against any group seeking to harm the U.S. or its coalition partners. When asked if this would allow “boots on the ground” in places like Yemen or the Congo, Taylor said yes. Does this mean the battlefield is everywhere, Senators asked? “Yes sir,” said Sheridan, “from Boston to FATA [Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas].”

Even hawkish Senators seemed nonplussed at these extraordinary claims. “The authority … has grown out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed” after 9/11, said John McCain. He found it “disturbing” that the Pentagon wants to continue this authority but said he understands “because basically you have carte blanche” to do anything around the world.

Newly elected Senators seemed genuinely shocked. Angus King of Maine said that the administration’s theory has “essentially rewritten the Constitution here today.” The Pentagon’s interpretation makes the war power of Congress “a nullity.” This gives “unbelievable powers to the president” making it “a very dangerous thing,” said King.

Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana asked if the AUMF allowed intervention in Syria. He pointed out that Al Nusra, one of the rebel groups, is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Could the executive branch use lethal force against the Front, he asked. Sheridan dodged the question. Senator Tim Kaine found the suggestion that the AUMF could justify action in Syria especially disturbing and said he did not want anyone to get the idea that this would be acceptable to Congress.

It was an extraordinary show of Pentagon arrogance, combined with a refreshing expression of Senatorial skepticism.

Game Changers and Red Lines in Syria

I appreciate the good comments readers have made on my thoughts about the Syrian crisis. Here are further reflections on the latest developments:

If the disclosure on Sunday by Carla Del Ponte of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is confirmed that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, this is a real game changer. It blows a big hole in the Obama administration’s story about the Assad regime crossing the President’s faux red line. It shows how little the government really knows about what’s going on in this complex and bloody civil war. It should make us extremely cautious about becoming involved militarily and reluctant about providing military support for the Syrian rebels.

Speaking of red lines, what about the apparent Israeli air strike against Syrian military facilities early Sunday morning? Several powerful explosions destroyed critical military installations near the presidential palace in Damascus, killing a number of elite Syrian troops. Israel has not confirmed the strikes, but the scale and precision of the attacks were unmistakably of Israeli origin. Sunday’s attack followed another apparent Israeli strike on Friday near the Damascus airport. U.S. officials say that Israel is acting to prevent the transfer of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israeli attacks against Syria are a blatant violation of international law. They increase the risk of the conflict spreading further in the region and should make us even more hesitant about becoming involved militarily. As the New York Times reports today, however, they seem to be stoking debate in Washington about ratcheting up military pressure on the Assad regime. Republican Senator John McCain has reiterated his call for a no-fly zone in Syria. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said over the weekend that the United States will probably soon begin providing arms for the rebels.

Arming the Syrian rebels would increase the intensity of a war that has already taken more than 70,000 lives. Providing weapons to the rebels means giving military support to insurgent forces that include substantial Al Qaida-related factions. If the jihadist groups in Syria are indeed the toughest fighters, as reports suggest, they are likely to gain control of any weapons we send. The U.S. would end up arming Al Qaida.