Obama risks being known as the 'drone president'

The US leader has tarnished his reputation in the Middle East by condoning extra-judicial, remote-controlled assassinations as "legal, ethical and wise".

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The White House's claim that its use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists is "legal, ethical and wise" is deeply troubling. The release of a Department of Justice "white paper" that purports to establish the Obama administration's legal justification for these killings only compounds these concerns.

In response to the excesses of his predecessor, George W Bush, President Barack Obama promised an administration that would respect due process, rule of law and judicial oversight, and be transparent and accountable. The white paper fails to deliver on all fronts.

Legal critics point to the document's vague criteria, saying that it essentially gives the administration the right to kill anyone (even a US citizen) anywhere (whether on or off the battlefield) anytime it deems it appropriate to do so.

According to the procedures established by Mr Obama's administration, a drone kill is justified if "an informed, high level [US]official" decides that a "target is a high-ranking Al Qaeda official or affiliate" who poses an "imminent threat of a violent attack against the United States, [where] capture is not feasible". The paper then dumbs-down the definitions of each of the operative terms ("high-ranking", "affiliate", "imminent" or "feasible") to such a disturbing degree that the mandate becomes more or less open-ended.

This has not passed without objection. Several senators and members of Congress are challenging the administration's use of drones, and several commentators and editorial writers have delivered stinging critiques.

Some have compared the Obama administration's approach to drone kills to the way the Bush crowd attempted to justify its use of torture. Both initially shrouded policies with secrecy. Both commissioned legal opinions to validate their behaviours. Both used language to obfuscate; torture became "enhanced interrogation", while assassinations have become "targeted killings"; and both maintained the inherent right of the executive branch to operate without oversight.

There is, no doubt, a perverse attractiveness to the use of drones to take out troublesome individuals. The technology is remarkable, allowing an individual thousands of kilometres away to engage in surveillance, to analyse data, and then, by remote control, to kill. It doesn't require putting the lives of American military personnel at risk.

But just because you have the technology that enables you to do something and are powerful enough to get away with doing it doesn't, by itself, provide sufficient justification. Nor does the preparation of a self-serving white paper, in which you give yourself questionable legal cover.

It is important to consider that the technology the US now possesses will soon be available to other states and non-state actors. So too the legal justifications American leaders are now using to give themselves absolution may also one day be used by others. What would be the US response to Iran or Hizbollah using drones to assassinate an Israeli defence official involved in planning a military strike against Iran? Or Al Shabab militants similarly killing an Ethiopian official?

Or what if Taliban operatives were to gain access to drones and use them against an American defence official visiting a neighbouring country? Odds are they might deem the target a "high-ranking official or affiliate" who posed "an imminent threat" and so on.

Another deeply troubling issue raised by the use of drones is the subjectivity involved in the entire exercise. We are assured by Obama administration officials that they engage many layers of internal review and agonise over each and every strike. At one point they boldly stated that there were no instances where collateral damage occurred. Now, however, they admit that there have been mistakes. Independent investigations estimate that of the 2,000 to more than 3,400 people who have been killed in drone strikes in recent years, so-called mistakes have resulted in between 300 to over 800 civilian deaths.

The term "collateral damage" is vile and antiseptic, masking real lives lost, families affected and entire communities traumatised.

What we don't know goes much deeper. What was the evidence used to sentence to death those who were killed? How "high level" were the targets? And what exactly were they doing that made us determine that they posed a threat to the United States? In the end, we are simply asked to trust that an informed high level official made the right call.

Finally, there are the impacts that this use of drones are having on affected populations, as well as on Mr Obama's legacy. The use of overwhelming deadly force only increases the sense of alienation and powerlessness among peoples whose hearts and minds we ought to be seeking to win. Dexter Filkins writes in the New Yorker about the fear and trauma and the resultant anti-American fury created by the use of drones in a village he visited in Yemen. I have heard as much from Pakistanis.

We've come a long way from President Obama's 2009 speech to the Muslim world in which he declared his willingness to address past failings and his openness to navigate "a new beginning". It would be tragic if his promises were betrayed to see him ultimately defined (as he currently is in some quarters) as the "drone president".

Mr Obama must listen to his critics and make good on his earlier promises to correct the course taken by his predecessor.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa