It’s probably forgotten now with the news of the NSA’s surveillance of all Americans taking over the headlines, but when Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, the mainstream media repeatedly declared that it marked a “shift” in drone policy.
Problems with such declarations were evident even while they were being made. Take the New York Times’ piece, “In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path”, which describes a “pivot in counterterrorism policy”, but then states:
For nearly four years, the president had waged a relentless war from the skies against Al Qaeda and its allies, and he trusted that he had found what he considered a reasonable balance even if his critics did not see it that way. But now, he told his aides, he wanted to institutionalize what in effect had been an ad hoc war, effectively shaping the parameters for years to come “whether he was re-elected or somebody else became president,” as one aide said.
That’s correct. The Obama administration itself didn’t announce any kind of “shift”. In fact they were explicit that what they were trying to do is, as the Times correctly put it here, “institutionalize” the policies that exist so that it will be more difficult for future administrations to change them.
The Times continued:
Ultimately, he would decide to write a new playbook that would scale back the use of drones, target only those who really threatened the United States, eventually get the C.I.A. out of the targeted killing business and, more generally, begin moving the United States past the “perpetual war” it had waged since Sept. 11, 2001. Whether the policy shifts will actually accomplish that remains to be seen, given vague language and compromises forced by internal debate, but they represent an effort to set the rules even after he leaves office.
Another way to put that portion I’ve bolded would be to say, whether there is actually a policy shift remains to be seen. And, again, indications are there is not, as the Times own reporting reveals. Further down the page, it notes that Obama “wanted to keep his own finger on the trigger” and ensure that future President’s, too, would personally make decisions about drone strikes. So no policy change there, just institutionalization of existing policy.
Then there is the fact that all of the supposed “shift” in policy “was codified in a Presidential Policy Guidance that remains classified”. How can the Times announce a “shift” when the actual policy remains a secret?
And near the end of the article, the Times adds:
For now, officials said, “signature strikes” targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.
So no “shift” on that count. Andrew Rosenthal pointed out in his blog for the Times how:
Toward the end of a May 27 article in The Times about President Obama’s speech in which, among other things, he mentioned setting new standards for ordering drone strikes against non-Americans, there was this rather disturbing paragraph:
“Even as he set new standards, a debate broke out about what they actually meant and what would actually change. For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes’ targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.”
As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, those two sentences seem to contradict the entire tenor of Mr. Obama’s speech, and of a letter to Congress from Attorney General Eric Holder.
After reconsidering the blaring headlines of a “shift” in policy, Rosenthal concludes:
I guess Glenn Greenwald was right. The president’s speech did not signal a specific, immediate change in the administration’s policy on signature strikes — just a promise that they will decline over time.
Esquire magazine observes:
The new rules apply only to operations conducted outside “areas of active hostilities.” A lot turns on the definition of that geographic boundary. For all we know, the administration may define parts of Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere as a zone of hostilities. The administration, however, doesn’t tell you how it decides when and where places of active hostilities exist. And wherever such zones exist, the new rules are irrelevant. In short, it is possible that the “new” rules may leave completely untouched some of the most significant parts of the existing drone program.
Jack Goldsmith in Foreign Affairs had a rare forthright analysis challenging the narrative of this supposed “shift”. Some excerpts (with bold emphasis added):
“This war, like all wars, must end,” President Barack Obama said in his much anticipated counterterrorism policy speech yesterday, at the National Defense University. Many commentators have said that the speech marks a major change in the direction of the war against Islamist terrorists, and anticipates its end. But, in reality, the speech portends few concrete changes. Its main aims were to conserve the arc of the secret war that Obama has presided over and to help deflect responsibility for the inherited problems that he has been unable to fix….
In recent months, the President’s stealth war has come under broad attack as illegal, unduly secretive, and strategically counterproductive, since it provokes blowback from nations whose sovereignty the United States violates and whose innocent civilians it kills. Obama addressed both difficulties at length in his speech, but nothing he said will bring a major change in policy….
Obama reiterated his old case for closing Guantánamo Bay and again urged Congress to lift its restrictions on transferring the facility’s detainees. And he proposed, once more, the idea of putting some detainees in a maximum-security or military prison in the United States. But he offered no plan to make these things happen, other than a pledge to work with Congress — the same pledge he made, with no results, in a major speech on counterterrorism policy in May 2009, and that he repeated, again with no results, five months ago in his State of the Union address. Against this background, it is hard to judge this latest pledge as anything other than empty rhetoric….
[O]n the crucial issue of how to resolve the problem of military detainees, Obama said only that “once we commit to a process of closing Guantánamo Bay, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” In other words, he has no plan worth mentioning….
Obama did announce small changes to his stealth war policy. He says that his administration will heighten the secret standards it previously employed for killing non-U.S. terrorists abroad, although lawyers are already debating exactly how much change this will amount to in practice, and the public will likely never know. He also announced a new classified Presidential Policy Guidance to codify guidelines and oversight for his drone and other use-of-force policies. It is impossible to assess the significance of the guidance, which replaces one set of secret policies and procedures with another, and which Obama could alter at any moment, also in secret….
There was also little of substance in Obama’s statements about ending the war against al Qaeda and its associates. He said, again without announcing a plan, that he wants to work with Congress to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the September 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that is the foundation for his global stealth war. This is not a serious proposal. Obama knows that the more belligerent Congress will not repeal this law. He also knows that he does not need Congress’ approval to end the war. He could do so tomorrow, or next year, or on the last day of his presidency….
When Obama says that he wants to end “the war,” he is not saying that there are no more significant threats from terrorist organizations or that he will stop using military force against them. Rather, he is saying that he wants to end the AUMF-directed war and rely on his own military authorities to defend the nation. This is a far cry from ending war.
So how has the New York Times handled the fact that the policies it declared would change in a dramatic “shift” are continuing? Let’s see.
Less than a week after President Obama outlined a new direction for the secret drone wars, Pakistani officials said that a C.I.A. missile strike on Wednesday killed a top member of the Pakistani Taliban, an attack that illustrated the continued murkiness of the rules that govern the United States’ targeted killing operations.
The drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt, along the Afghan border, was the first since Mr. Obama announced what his administration billed as sweeping changes to the drone program, with new limits on who would be targeted and more transparency in reporting such strikes.
But in the days since the president’s speech, American officials have asserted behind the scenes that the new standards would not apply to the C.I.A. drone program in Pakistan as long as American troops remained next door in Afghanistan — a reference to Mr. Obama’s exception for an “Afghan war theater.” For months to come, any drone strikes in Pakistan — the country that has been hit by the vast majority of them, with more than 350 such attacks by some estimates — will be exempt from the new rules.
Actually, it wasn’t Mr. Obama who billed his speech as being indicative of “sweeping changes to the drone program”, it was the New York Times and rest of the mainstream media who ignored what the administration actually was saying in order to invent their own version of it.
And notice the Times’ effort to make it sound like the administration made this big announcement of a shift only to later, “in the days since”, start changing its own story. False. The admiration made clear, for example, on the same day as Obama’s speech that there would be no change in policy with regard to drones strikes in Pakistan. Here’s a senior administration official’s response to the question, “will signature strikes explicitly be prohibited now?”
On the signature strike question that you asked, I don’t want to get into the details of any specific strike. What I’d say is, first of all, we indicate a preference to work with partners, first and foremost, to deal with the threat of terrorism. Any action that we do take in terms of direct lethal action is subject to that standard of a continuing and imminent threat to the United States. The context for this is generally our war against al Qaeda and associated forces, but of course in the Afghan war theater, there is a slightly different context in the sense that we take action against high-value al Qaeda targets, but we also take action against forces that are massing to support attacks on our troops and on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
So by the end of 2014, as we wind down the war in Afghanistan, we will not have the same need for force protection and those types of strikes that are designed to protect our forces in Afghanistan. Furthermore, we believe that the core of al Qaeda has been greatly diminished so, therefore, that will reduce the need for unmanned strikes against the core of al Qaeda as well.
So I think you can take from that the context for which we view these strikes, particularly in the Afghan war theater where there had been the dual needs in the past for both action against al Qaeda core and action to protect our forces in Afghanistan.
Given the two principal changing circumstances in our effort against terrorism — the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and the demise of al Qaeda core — the need for the types of strikes that we’ve taken generally over the course of the last several years will be reduced over time.
In other words, a clear and unambiguous “No”.