The President Head Fakes on Lethal Drone Strikes and the War on Terror
Nothing in the President’s speech hasn’t been said before, and with much more force and a greater sense of commitment. His sprawling meditation on the threat of terrorism was less a grand vision for where terrorism fits into the rest of the President’s responsibilities and the nation’s challenges, and more a doubling-down on the global paradigm left over from the Bush years.
The war on terror cannot go on indefinitely, but it is nevertheless a real war which can be fought, and concluded, instead of an semantic impossibility. And this war must not be boundless, even if we must be willing and allowed to wage it wherever and whenever the President thinks it’s necessary. We must encourage democracy in other countries, except the ones whose dictators are already friendly towards us.
This is not a dramatic shift in policy–it’s the slow but determined institutionalization of it. The President wants the AUMF limited at such a time as he deems it feasible, but not thrown out altogether. His words say the decades long war(s) the country has been embroiled in must come to an end, but everything he proposes would allow it to continue in a less visible, less costly form for several decades to come.
And yet I suspect that because the nation’s response to global terrorist threats over the past decade have set such a low bar when it comes to transparency, honesty, and principledness, that many feel the “new” course charted in the President’s speech is more groundbreaking and praiseworthy than it actually is.
Of course it’s not though. Rather the President’s speech last Thursday proved to be an exemplar in bad-faith argumentation, expedient illogic, and some combination of ignorance, disingenuousness, and effortless condescension.
More than anything else, the President’s speech focused on justification. It was literally a litany of excuses, some more compelling than others. As he himself points out in the speech, the shift of the “Global War on Terror” from a series of land occupations to a series of discrete airstrikes (often predicated on intelligence resources and military capabilities yielded by those ground wars), raises many questions. The much less visible, much less transparent bureaucracy of lethal drone strikes, while expanded during the President’s first term in office, remains as nebulous, both legally and morally, as anything that occurred as a result of torture policy during the Bush Administration.
“As was true in previous armed conflicts,” Obama said, “this new technology raises profound questions – about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.”
And what answers does he have to these “profound” questions? First, he asserts that the program has been indisputably “effective.” Evidence for this is limited to a couple words gleaned from UBL’s compound and classified information. “Don’t take my word for it,” the President says, before only moments later requiring we do just that, “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” But what about the lives they take?
After all, the President admits that the civilian casualties, of which there have been thousands, will haunt him and his staff forever. And though he acknowledges this is cold comfort to those already killed accidentally in strikes, and their friends and families, the American people should, he seems to believe, be reassured when he falsely claims that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
That is, of course, a lie, remarkable only for how brazenly the President it asserts as anything but. Any analysis based on prior lethal strikes would allow the administration to approximately predict just what the likelihood would be of civilian casualties. And most drone critics have never even asserted that the “highest” standard the President lies about applying should in fact be used. Rather many of them have maintained that the value of the target, and the threat he or she poses, must be proportional to the potential for innocent men, women, and children to be killed as well.
But the President claims that his drone policy for the last four years has been proportional, and also one of self-defense and last resort, and therefore just. Make no mistake–the President maintains that his policy of lethal drone strikes is just! He has done his own calculus, using information which only he is privy to, and arrived at the following conclusion,
“I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.”
This is both insulting and incredibly offensive to anyone who takes these issues seriously and to anyone who takes the tragic loss of life as seriously as the President himself claims to. The shoddy logic of false dichotomies and frail strawmen is not befitting of an enlightened democracy, the elected official who speaks to them, or the office he holds.
By the President’s own admission, the focus of the national security apparatus should be on those individuals aimed at committing terrorist acts in America, and perhaps its allies (he remains vague on which geographically located plots we have a commitment to actively seek out and prevent). So it is far from clear that the terrorists we blow up are the same ones that would have tried to blow up the people we accidentally blew up already. That is part of Obama’s defense though.
The rest of his argument is that doing nothing is not an option, even if its the only option besides doing what he’s currently doing. This is the thoughtful scholar that those at the New Yorker and elsewhere praise for being more nuanced and cerebral than his predecessor. If we are to take his speech seriously, we must come to the conclusion that Obama’s moral imagination is no more complex than the binary choices explored in video games and comic books. No evidence presented before or after that paragraph does anything to try and substantiate the President’s argument that his path is the best path; the only path.
Which should reinforce an even more important point: little in the President’s speech outlined why the path going forward will be any different from the one he already followed in the previous four years. He spent 7,000 words defending his policies and reworking the rhetoric surrounding them because they will be more or less the same ones he abides by in his second term.
The President paid lip service to the allure of drone warfare and its potential for abuse, reminding us that a President could be tempted to see it as a cure-all, just before he then reminds us that THIS President will not. The President claims that “For this reason, I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action.” Another clear lie. Unless the President has a dramatically different understanding of what effective oversight means. Which might be the case given how easily these oversight sessions have been analogized to playing with baseball trading cards.
So the President has always insisted on strong oversight, always utilized lethal strikes as a last resort and only when absolutely necessary, and there have never, ever been any mistakes. This will also be the policy going forward, according to the President, as he seeks to codify these rules and procedures in case anyone didn’t believe him, and/or the next administration is not as enlightened as this one (because rules instituted during one presidency can’t be undone by another, except when they inevitably are).
In addition, as the Christian Science Monitor reported just after the President’s speech,
“But, Obama added, this new policy ‘codified’ rules that the White House has developed over four years. He didn’t say ‘changed’ in this context. The guidance itself is classified, so the public does not know exactly what it says. And other sections of the president’s speech that referred to drones were so carefully worded as to be ‘opaque,’ according to one expert.”
Let’s turn for a moment to observe the President’s equally tortured logic on the issue of due process,
“a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.”
The only way the President’s analogy works here is if Anwar Awlaki was shooting innocent people in a crowd, and he were killed by a SWAT team sent to detain him. Of course, that wasn’t the case. In such circumstances he would not have been killed by a lethal drone strike as he actually was because innocent people in the crowd probably would have been injured as well.
And if Anwar Awlaki were killed in the U.S., by a SWAT team, in any set of circumstances in which he wasn’t holding a gun and pointing it at someone, there would have been a full investigation, there would have been judicial review–so really I don’t know what the President is trying to say here.
Just like I have no idea what he means when he says the “high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets,” and that this high “threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.” What does it mean to have the utmost respect for the dignity of human life when you accidentally kill thousands of men, women, and children, as well as three other American citizens?
Finally, there’s the issue of where the extremism that renders so many people’s lives, in practice at least, undeserving of basic dignity and the rule of law, comes from. According to the President, the ideology that fuels terrorism doesn’t “arise in a vacuum.” Rather there is,
“a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts. Nevertheless, this ideology persists.”
Toward the end of the President’s speech though he contradicts this explanation, explaining that part of the counterterrorism strategy must include “addressing underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.”
“This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears.”
Unfortunately, the President didn’t offer an explanation for why other countries ruled by U.S. backed dictatorships shouldn’t also be included in that list of places where we must support the transition to democracy. And certainly it has been a matter of U.S. policy for some time now to assist countries in becoming better educated and more economically prosperous. Hasn’t the Obama administration been doing this all along?