Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama's lofty pledges

Barack Obama's speech on drones was a response to years of campaigning. One must offer him credit for the changes, without forgetting he is the beneficiary of change trying to act as its agent

Pep Montserrat for The National
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It was a "season of fear", he said. Government trimming facts and evidence "to fit ideological predispositions"; making decisions based on fear rather than foresight; setting aside principles "as luxuries that we could no longer afford". "We went off course," he concluded.

It was a fine speech: thoughtful, bold and idealistic. The US president, Barack Obama, delivered it at the National Archives in Washington on May 21, 2009.

Last Thursday, when Mr Obama addressed the question of national security again during his National Defense University speech, he sounded equally high-minded. But where in his first speech he addressed the excesses of his predecessor, this time he had his own to consider. The most serious of these were born of Mr Obama's inability to deliver fully on promises he made in his earlier address.

At the National Archives, Mr Obama vowed to end torture, shut CIA black sites and close Guantanamo. It was the clean break he had promised. But faced with a Republican backlash, Mr Obama caved. Torture and black sites were abolished but Guantanamo remained. Torture memos were released but torturers roamed free. To shield himself against charges of weakness, Mr Obama escalated the covert war.

The war since its inception was governed as much by security considerations as by its political logic. By eschewing large-scale military deployment in favour of drones and special forces, and through aggressive prosecution of journalists and whistle-blowers, Mr Obama has kept his actions secret, releasing himself from domestic political constraints, claiming successes where they have occurred, disowning failures.

But it is the manner in which Mr Obama kept promises that raises concerns. In two important investigations into the deliberations behind the administration's use of lethal force - Daniel Klaidman's Kill or Capture (2012) and Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife (2013) - we learn that in its first term, the administration repeatedly resolved the political complications of detaining terrorism suspects by opting to have them killed.

There was also a legal rationale - the Geneva conventions forbid torture under any circumstances but killing is permitted in war. Covered by the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) resolution that Congress had granted his predecessor, Mr Obama dealt with the troubling questions of detention, jurisdiction and torture by ensuring that none would be detained.

Equally dangerous was the administration's decision to expand lethal operations beyond declared war zones. George W Bush restored the licence to kill that the CIA had lost in the mid-1970s after the Senate's Church Committee probe revealed widespread abuses. Mr Obama formalised and expanded the agency's paramilitary function and resurrected the Vietnam-era practice of using special forces as death squads to "neutralise" enemies.

The infamous Operation Phoenix had resulted in more than 26,000 assassinations in Vietnam, leading Congress to place limits on military action outside declared war zones.

The Obama administration manoeuvred around such restrictions by putting Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces temporarily under CIA command, using its "Title 50" authority to act globally. The authority, which allows the CIA to carry out covert operations, had been granted with purely intelligence gathering activities in mind, which Mr Obama used to sanction lethal military operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The confluence of secrecy, technology and special forces diminished the costs of foreign intervention, releasing the president from the complications of congressional approval and oversight.

The approach served Mr Obama well. Defence, putatively, is the Democrat Party's Achilles heel but, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney could find no chinks in Mr Obama's armour. If Mr Obama is volunteering to relinquish such powers, this must be welcomed.

In his NDU speech, Mr Obama raised all the right questions; but his answers were inadequate and practical proposals remained sketchy. He rightly warned against the dangers of "perpetual war" but promised to continue his own indefinitely. He proposed transferring drones from the CIA to the military, subjecting them to the minimum constraints of military rules of engagement - but this was a preference rather than a guarantee.

The president proposed granting Congress the authority to oversee drone strikes - establishing special courts to evaluate and authorise targets - but no concessions were made to international laws forbidding extrajudicial killing.

There were some genuine advances. The new Presidential Policy Guidance shows a narrower targeting criteria that should end so-called "signature strikes"—strikes that kill on the basis of suspicion alone. But considering that the administration had already been describing its targeting criteria in the same terms, there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of this new commitment. Neither has Mr Obama scaled down the administration's description of what constitutes an "imminent" threat.

Given the contradictions and ambiguity of Mr Obama's statements, it seemed that the public introspection was necessitated less by moral anguish than by the administration's need, amid protest and scandal, to persuade supporters of the inherent morality of his actions. But the greater shifts mandating the change in tone have occurred elsewhere.

In the past year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there has been a considerable drop in drone strikes in Pakistan. There were 128 in 2010 but just 44 in 2012. This year, there have been 12. The number of strikes has fallen in Yemen also. The Obama administration might offer this as evidence of its sincerity in scaling down the war. But the actual causes are to be found in the targeted countries.

The initial drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen were carried out with the approval of their respective governments, but both retained the right to call a halt.

In 2002, the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, exercised this right after he felt slighted by the US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, after the first ever drone strike. Mr Wolfowitz revealed on TV that the attack, which the Yemeni president had claimed as his, was carried out by the US. There wouldn't be another strike on Yemeni soil during Mr Bush's reign.

The former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, was also unwilling to grant the US carte blanche. Between June 2004, when the first drone struck Pakistan, and August 2008, when Musharraf stepped down as president, there were 17 attacks. But the war escalated sharply once the pliant Zardari government assumed office, with 351 attacks being launched to date, including many "signature strikes".

The war in Pakistan was scaled down only after tensions emerged between the US and the Pakistani military forcing the Zardari government to reconsider its cooperation.

Around the same time, in Yemen, the war escalated as the Saleh government was weakened by protests against his authoritarian rule. The number of attacks dropped only after stability returned to Yemen.

With a new government in Pakistan, one that takes a dim view of foreign intervention, it was inevitable that the US would have to reappraise its policy. This is what Mr Obama set out to do last week.

Despite its equivocations, Mr Obama's recent speech was significant. Its commitment to de-escalation might have been rhetorical, but presidential rhetoric shapes discourse and creates expectations. In making rhetorical concessions, ballast is added to the political sentiment that forced it initially. His speech was a response to years of campaigning, in the US and in affected countries. He was mouthing the concerns of others - trimming sails to winds already changed. He must be given credit but without forgetting he is the beneficiary of change trying to act as its agent.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and the author of a forthcoming book on the Iraq war. He edits