Last week President Obama delivered a major speech on Counterterrorism at the National Defense University, hopefully marking a major shift in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. There were many things to like about Obama’s speech: a nuanced, less exaggerated description of the threat of terrorism to the United States, his calls to rein in U.S. drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay and establish a media shield law to prevent government intrusion against the press. Moreover, it was refreshing to hear a U.S. President frankly discuss the moral implications of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. I was also impressed by his handling of a Code Pink protestor. His respectful response to her interruption reminded me of the great politician, 2008 Obama.
At the same time, however, the question remains as to whether Obama’s actions will match his words. Given the difference between his rhetoric and record on civil liberties, there is good reason to doubt his commitment to reform.
Although Obama has been widely criticized over the past few weeks for Benghazi, the IRS and DOJ/AP scandals, it is important to remember that most Americans support his counterterrorism policy. In fact, most voters are not demanding reform or even paying attention. A Fox News Poll in April found that 69% of Americans approved of the “job the government is doing to protect the country against terrorism.” That same week, a CBS Poll found that 70% of respondents “favored the U.S. using unmanned aircraft to or ‘drones’ to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.” And despite all the outrage over Benghazi, Public Policy Polling announced last week that 39% of Americans who described the Benghazi scandal as “the biggest political scandal in American history” don’t know where Benghazi is located. In short, once these current scandals die down, Obama is unlikely to face sustained popular pressure for reform.
But even if Obama is personally committed to change, it’s doubtful that this speech will appease the Congressional Republicans whose support he needs for many reforms, including closing Guantanamo. Senator McCain (R-AZ) responded that Obama’s description of Al Qaeda demonstrated “a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible.” Senator Chambliss (R-GA) said that “the President’s speech will be viewed by terrorists as a victory.”
Despite all this pessimism, I believe Obama’s strategy was in the right direction. My biggest problem is that I would have liked to see him go further in two ways.
For one, I felt the speech oversimplified the moral dilemma surrounding drone strikes and downplayed their civilian casualties. Instead, Obama stated that the U.S. currently “only targets Al Qaeda and its associated forces” and “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.” However, few independent analysts would agree with this assessment. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. launched 52 drone strikes in Pakistan during the Bush administration, killing 258 combatants and 182 civilians (41.5% of total victims). During Obama’s first term, Washington launched over 300 drone strikes in Pakistan killing 2,152 people including 260 civilians (13.5%). Strictly by the numbers, Obama therefore appears more sensitive to civilian casualties. But the 13.5% rate of civilian casualties is complete nonsense. According to his administration’s Orwellian coding rules, any military aged man killed in a drone strike is presumed to be a combatant until proven innocent after the fact. As such, independent analyses suggest higher levels of civilian casualties. For instance, a study by Jonathan Landay found that:
“Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy, however, show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards.
The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasn’t on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didn’t exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as ‘other militants’ and ‘foreign fighters’…
At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were ‘assessed’ as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.
Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘other militants.'”
Second, it is unclear how Obama’s recommendations to ensure oversight of U.S. drone operations would work. Since the Presidential Policy Guidance that he signed is still classified, it is impossible to say if any meaningful changes have been made. (Also it is unclear why a sanitized version of this document could not be declassified.) Likewise, Obama claims that his administration has briefed Congress on every strike. Yet, Congress has historically been reluctant to exercise significant oversight of covert operations, and Conor Friedersdorf shows that its current oversight of the drone program is exaggerated.
Lastly, Obama stated that he would work with Congressional leaders to develop additional oversight, but immediately went on to express his doubts regarding a special court or independent board in the executive branch to do so. Given his administration’s current relationship with Congress, it’s hard to imagine the two groups joining together to find a reasonable third solution.
In sum, Obama’s speech appears to be a step in the right direction, but I doubt it’s a large step. Given his disappointing track record with civil liberties and the fact that his speech recurrently shifted the burden for reform to the U.S. Congress, I would not bet on a major change to the status quo. Still, I really hope I’m wrong.