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.