U.S. Drone Strikes under Obama: of Pirates and Emperors

by May 30, 2012Foreign Policy0 comments

Jo Becker and Scott Shane have an extraordinary article in the New York Times about Obama’s use of drone strikes that sheds some interesting light on U.S. policy under his administration.


Jo Becker and Scott Shane have an extraordinary article in the New York Times about Obama’s use of drone strikes that sheds some interesting light on U.S. policy under his administration.

It opens by describing how Obama on January 19, 2010 sat deciding on the fate of 15 terrorist “suspects” in Yemen who included several Americans and a 17 year old girl before flashing back to explain how Obama had declared for himself the power to assassinate even American citizens.

Obama “has reserved to himself the final moral calculation”, the Times notes, and “approves lethal action without hand-wringing.” (Okay, here I have to pause and make two book recommendations: Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare and The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D.) When Obama, a constitutional lawyer by profession, “applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign” of killing with drone strikes, “even when it comes to killing an American”, the Times tells us.

The drone strikes serve to escalate the threat of terrorism, the Times points out, stating that they have become “the recruiting tool of choice for militants”. The example is cited of Faisal Shahzad, the man responsible for the Times Square car bomb plot, who tried to justify his actions in his guilty plea by telling the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

One is reminded of the story told by St. Augustine in City of God about how Alexander the Great demands of a captured pirate “how dare he molest the sea”, to which the pirate in turn demands to know “How dare you molest the whole world. Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.”

The drone killing program is not without its critics, such as Dennis C. Blair, who is quoted saying, “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’—reminded me of body counts in Vietnam.” Blair is a retired admiral who served in Vietnam and was also former Director of National Intelligence until he was fired for criticizing policies such as the drone killing program that could increase the threat of terrorism by resulting in blowback (or as the Times put it in a separate article, “their propensity to backfire”).

“What remains unanswered is how much killing will be enough,” the Times comments. “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Obama’s former chief of staff William M. Daley is quoted saying, with regard to the decision-making process. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

The Times jumps back to the beginning of Obama’s presidency, noting how he had said one thing for public consumption during his campaign but did another once in office. He was “providing martial cover” for himself by signing several executive orders to ostensibly “make good on campaign pledges”, but being a “realist” who “was never carried away by his own rhetoric”, he made sure that they “contained a few subtle loopholes” that “preserved three major policies—rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention”.

Providing another example, the Times notes how Obama pledged to close down Guantanamo, and then four months into his presidency repeated his pledge in a speech he gave while standing in front of the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., knowing all the while that “he had never devised a plan” to actually implement the policy shift he had promised in order to get elected.

The authors also remark how “Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive.”

The Times comments that only “A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not”—that Obama’s actions did not match his rhetoric, that he was trying to claim credit for changing the policy from that of the Bush administration while in fact continuing it.

I guess that makes me a “sharp-eyed observer”, since I was telling people at the time that Obama’s rhetoric was perfectly transparent. During the campaign season, I argued that people interested in real hope and change should vote for Ron Paul, because an Obama presidency would just be more of the same. In October 2008, the month before the election, I wrote an article titled “Whoever Wins U.S. Election, Policy in ‘War on Terror’ Unlikely to Change”. After his election, I pointed out that far from reversing Bush’s policies, Obama’s actions served only to further institutionalize them, such as by protecting torturers. I criticized “Obama’s continuation off Bush’s policy” with regard to the detention of “unlawful enemy combatants”, military commissions, and his claim of executive authority to interpret or define the law however he pleases.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

The Times is wrong, though. It didn’t take a particularly “sharp-eyed observer” to see that Obama was a hypocrite. I regard this observation as having been perfectly evident throughout his campaign. The truth is that for anyone who was paying attention, it must have taken a great deal of effort not to see it, extraordinary willpower to choose ignorance and self-deception rather than face the reality.

In many areas, Obama didn’t even attempt to hide his imperialist mindset. The Times gives yet another example of how, “during the campaign, Mr. Obama had trumpeted his plan to go after terrorist bases in Pakistan—even if Pakistani leaders objected”, and how, once in office, “Mr. Obama has done exactly what he had promised”.

Despite all of this, the Times piece tries to portray Obama as a responsible president who takes great care and consideration to protect innocent lives into his deliberations over whether to kill or not to kill. “In response to his concerns,” the piece states, “the CIA downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes”, and “the president tightened standards” so that “If the agency did not have a ‘near certainty’ that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.”

But all that really means, of course, is that Obama would personally authorize any strikes for which there existed a likelihood of resulting in the murder of civilians. (You really should read that book about when psychopaths go to work.)

As the Times summarizes, “The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution,”—meaninglessly—“but did not significantly change the program.”

But Obama is an empathetic and concerned person, right? He would never abuse his authority and order strikes knowing civilians would be killed, right? Certainly a person of moral conscience could not make such decisions. Such a dilemma. How to solve it? How to avoid civilian casualties?

Simple. Just redefine anyone who is killed in a drone strike as a “militant”. That way Obama can be briefed about how the strikes he orders killed only “militants”, so that he can rest easy.

The Times describes this as Obama having “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

So Obama could sleep well at night knowing that anyone other than women and children killed in drone strikes must be guilty of being a “terrorist” or “unlawful combatant” unless they are proven innocent—which, of course, apart from being logically impossible, nobody in the national security establishment had any incentive to try to do.

The Times authors remark dryly: “This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.” Gee, ya think? Like the number “0” given for the number of civilians killed over the course of a year, according to Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, the article points out.

There’s another lesson the Times article has for attentive readers, regarding Brennan. It tells how Harold H. Koh, “a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies” who became “the State Department’s top lawyer” under Obama, regards Brennan as “a principled ally. ‘If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,’ Mr. Koh said. ‘It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.’”

Koh’s own principles seem to apply only across party lines. Bush’s policies were bad, says this “leading liberal critic”, but when Obama not only continues but escalates Bush’s policies, it is good. So we have one unprincipled person giving his praising judgment of another, even comparing Brennan to a “priest”. St. Brennan’s “strong moral values” were illustrated when in June 2011 he claimed that in the previous year “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” from drone strikes.

Everyone at the time knew that St. Brennan was lying, of course. A three-month investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism subsequently found that “Some 175 children are among at least 2,347 people reported killed in U.S. attacks [in Pakistan] since 2004. There are credible reports of at least 392 civilians among the dead.” In Pakistan, at least 253 drone strikes had been carried out since Obama took office, with at least 1,897 people killed, at least 225 of whom “may have been civilians.” The Bureau found that “Civilian casualties do seem to have declined in the past year. Yet the Bureau still found credible evidence of at least 45 civilians killed in some ten strikes in this time.

Brennan later qualified his claim by saying, “Well, what I said was that over a period of time before my public remarks that we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant, being killed.” So his story changed from “No civilians have been killed” to “We don’t know that any civilians have been killed”—not an insignificant difference. And naturally they didn’t know that any of the men they’d killed were civilians, since the dead were defined as “militants” by default, since Obama and Brennan also had “no information” that they were noncombatants. So long as they could say, “We don’t know if they are terrorists, but we also don’t know that they are not”, then they could be killed and the administration could declare they had “no information” that any civilians had been killed.

Brennan, knowing perfectly well that he had lied, then tried to justify the administration’s actions by announcing, “Sometimes you have to take life to save lives.” Recalling Blair’s comparison of the situation to Vietnam, one is also reminded of the military official who during the Vietnam war justified civilian casualties by declaring, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”.

The number of civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama, Brennan later claimed, was in the “single digits”, and anyone who believed otherwise, the Times paraphrased him saying, was “unwittingly” falling for “false propaganda claims by militants”—unlike people who believe the claims from the Obama administration, who surely could not be falling for false propaganda claims by government officials.

The article talks about how Obama’s national security team “pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.” This is described as the “nominations” process, “a grim debating society” in which Obama ultimately would personally decide the fate of these “terrorist suspects”—prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.

For all the administration’s claims of strict guidelines to protect civilian lives, in the end Obama may just throw it all out the window, anyway, such as when he ordered the assassination of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. This attack, the Times notes, “did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing” since he was “not an imminent threat to the United States” and since the planned strike “did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of ‘near certainty’ of no innocents being killed.” The planned attack didn’t meet the latter criteria because they knew for a fact that the planned attack on the home of Mehsud’s in-laws would also kill his wife and other family members.

The first drone attack Obama ordered in Yemen “killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents.” This was bad PR for the administration because “Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesman holding up American missile parts flooded YouTube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.”

As a consequence of that deadly attack, the article states, Obama and Brennen “once again … tried to impose some discipline.” How comforting.

The article describes how

In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

How reassuring that the killing of innocent civilians in U.S. drone strikes is a laughing matter inside the State Department.

The article goes on to explain how, “Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know”—naturally, since any adult male is judged “guilty” be default.

Obama has even claimed for himself the authority to order the assassination even of American citizens. The Times explains how

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.

So in the mind of Barack Obama, a student of constitutional law, the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of “due process” doesn’t mean that one is entitled to be tried in a court of law, to be confronted with the evidence against him, to be judged by a jury of his peers. No, what the 5th Amendment means, according to President Obama, is that Americans, too, are guilty until proven innocent, and may also be ordered killed by the president, who alone is the prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.

The article returns to the theme of how Americans who were critical of Bush leave their principles behind when it comes to Obama, either because they have dropped their guard with the naïve belief that Obama represents “Hope” and “Change” or because they are simply hypocrites. The authors write how

Mr. Obama’s record has not drawn anything like the sweeping criticism from allies that his predecessor faced. John B. Bellinger III, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, said that was because Mr. Obama’s liberal reputation and “softer packaging” have protected him. “After the global outrage over Guantánamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians,” said Mr. Bellinger, who supports the strikes….

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

And when the blowback comes, the U.S. President can simply declare that it is because they hate our freedoms, because they just have no regard for civilian lives. How dare they molest the seas.

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

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