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.

Drones and the human cost of war

The debate about drones continues on the pages of Cato Unbound. You can check out the site and become part of the conversation here.

In my most recent posting I counter Daniel Goure’s assertion that drones do not increase the temptation to intervene militarily. I and many others have argued to the contrary, that drones are troubling precisely because they lower the domestic costs of using military force.

We know that concerns about casualties play a role in decisions about military intervention. This is as it should be in a democratic society where leaders are supposed to be accountable to public concerns. Some military operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the ‘Black Hawk down’ disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties government officials sometimes try to hide the human costs of war.  Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force.

Consider the military interventions in Pakistan and Somalia. Without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan or Somalia would be ground operations. These would be much bloodier than drone strikes and far more dangerous. They would carry a high risk of failure.  If drones did not exist, and invasions were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations in Pakistan or Somalia? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaigns of military strikes against Pakistan and Somalia. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

Debating Drones: Convenient Killing?

Last week I was on The News Hour debating the question of drone weapons.

Drone technology is spreading rapidly. As many as 50 countries are developing or purchasing these systems, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran. Even non-state actors are involved. Hezbollah reportedly has deployed an Iranian-designed drone. Iran is developing a new drone warcraft with a range of more than 600 miles. These systems are used mostly for surveillance, but it is not difficult to equip the aircraft with missiles and bombs.

Recently in Massachusetts, a man was arrested for plotting to place explosives on a drone aircraft and fly it into the Pentagon or the Capitol building. Private contractors are getting into the business as well. We now have companies offering drones-for-hire.

What kind of a future are we creating for our children? We face the prospect of a world in which every nation will have drone warfare capability, in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning.

Read the rest of my editorial on cnn.com.

Watch my interview on PBS Newshour: