One of the pillars of President Obama’s foreign policy when he took office in 2008 was the need to forge a new, more positive American image in the Middle East.
Paramount in this effort is making public the decision process for approving and carrying out CIA and Pentagon drone strikes. On Thursday afternoon, the president will take the first public step towards fulfilling his pledge of transparency when he speaks at the National Defense University, where he is expected to outline the justifications used in targeted drone strikes.
The announcement of the speech alone sparked a lot of coverage this week from across the media spectrum, including multiple New York Times articles and a series of trending activist videos including one on UpWorthy comparing the drone program to a Bond villain’s plot. The president’s remarks are sure to renew public debate and will hopefully allow the public to make a well-informed decision as to whether or not the use of drones is justified, necessary, and in the national interest.
Central to the debate, as it currently stands, is the matter of how the drone strikes are chosen and conducted. A clip featured on UpWorthy from the documentary “Living Under Drones” aims to shed light on the human costs of the U.S. drone program and combat what its creators believe to be the inaccurate narrative about the U.S. drone policy, notable that it is a “surgically precise” tool and allows for “targeted killings” of terrorists with minimal collateral damage.
The number of airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan has dropped dramatically in recent years, partly due to there being fewer targets, worsening relations with Pakistan, and internal doubts about their use. In Pakistan, this translates to a decrease from a high of 117 strikes in 2010 to 13 so far in 2013. As counter-terrorism expert Mark Mazzetti points out, during the early Obama years no “prominent member of President Obama’s own party had criticized drone strikes, and Republicans were hardly in a position to challenge the new president for fighting too aggressive a campaign against terrorists.”
Recently, however, a series of high-ranking officials who once supported the drone policy have begun to argue as our domestic and international political landscape continues to change, the strikes no longer belong in today’s conflict. Earlier this month, former legal adviser to the State Department Harold Koh, who he himself assured the public in 2010 that practices for choosing targets “are extremely robust,” urged that questions on the choosing of targets and counting of civilian casualties be clarified.
U.S. Naval Postgraduate School professor Bradley Jay Strawser cites concerns that the strikes are not being used as intended, as a necessary defense against an imminent threat, but instead are used because they are more expedient or easier than other methods. He told the New York Times, “Drone warfare, in abstract terms, seems to be a moral improvement from alternative forms of aerial combat… [Drones strikes] are more accurate and allow drone pilots to be more capable at discriminating between combatants and civilians than alternative means. However, it is quite possible that current actual drone warfare is doing more harm than good.”
Avery Plaw, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts added that, “drone strikes have done more good than harm and should be continued, provided that the Obama administration can offer more clarity on what’s being done and can provide a sound legal justification for doing it... Where civilian casualties cannot be avoided, they must be minimized. This is what drone strikes do.”
Some important critics, such as former CIA Director Michael Hayden and retired general Stanley McChrystal, are less doubtful of the legality of the drone strikes and are more concerned with their effectiveness at this stage of the War on Terror. They believe that, although once effective, the time for drones has passed. The costs of the strikes now outweigh their benefits. For example, drone strikes were cited as a motivation for the failed attack on a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the attempted car bombing of Times Square in 2010.
For each terrorist killed, the saying goes, two more are created. Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist who studied in the U.S., testified before the Senate Judiciary sub-committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights in April that his Yemeni friends and neighbors who once imagined the United States through “my stories of the wonderful experiences I had [here]. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”
When Obama presents his justification for drone strikes and what they have achieved, the public will learn much more about the “legal architecture” for choosing targets the president spoke of in his 2013 State of the Union Address. The transparency that comes from the speech is critical in completing our understanding of the current program and how best to move forward. But even if Obama is able to justify the past use of drones, it appears that with intense doubts about the unintended consequences of the strikes and the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, the drone program will soon end, closing a troubling chapter of American history.