Peace Action West News

More questions than answers: Obama’s counterterrorism speech

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People who were hoping to see the end of the so-called “war on terror” on the horizon likely found some encouragement in President Obama’s speech today, but even more concern and lingering questions. It appears that some criticisms are getting through, as the New York Times reports a decline in drone strikes. The president has likely become concerned with the legacy that his counterterrorism policy will leave, but what he’s given us so far doesn’t go nearly far enough in reining it in.

Steps in the right direction

  • Releasing Guantanamo detainees. While the administration has rightly lambasted Congress for holding up the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, they haven’t exhausted their options for moving the process along. At the top of the list is releasing dozens of prisoners who have been cleared of charges but are still serving indefinite sentences. In his speech, President Obama announced that he would lift the moratorium on releasing detainees to Yemen, a major roadblock. He is also appointing a senior envoy at the State and Defense Departments focused on transferring detainees to third countries.
  • Revisiting the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The president stretched the meaning of the law significantly when he claimed we are at war with Al Qaeda and “associated forces” (a phrase that does not appear in the AUMF). But he at least recognized that the twelve-year-old authorization needs to be revisited and ultimately repealed. Given how hawks in Congress are likely to favor expanding the current law, it was encouraging that the president said he “will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.”
  • Emphasizing alternatives to war. While most of the speech focused on military tools, the president acknowledged the importance of foreign assistance, despite its unpopularity with an uninformed public. He noted, “But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent.”

Continuing in the wrong direction

  • Defining threats. President Obama argued that drone strikes are reserved for people who can’t be captured, which would be his preference. But he also put up a couple of straw arguments that distract from the real questions about this policy. He proposed that the alternative to the strikes is “waiting for attacks to occur,” with even more civilian casualties as a result. But there is compelling evidence that the people being killed in drones strikes would not have the capacity and/or inclination to attack the US. The New America Foundation estimates that only 2% of those targeted in Pakistan were militant leaders. The leaked white paper from the Justice Department on standards for targeting Americans (which would presumably be more stringent) include a disturbingly broad definition of an “imminent threat” that doesn’t pass the laugh test. The president didn’t offer any evidence to dispute those concerns other than repeating how dangerous these terrorist groups are.
  • Justification for targeting Americans. President Obama noted that he released information on four Americans killed by US drones to increase transparency, and attempted to justify the targeting of Anwar Al-Awlaki. He didn’t mention in the speech that the three other Americans were killed by accident (including one who may have been killed in a “signature strike,” based on patterns of behavior rather than actually knowing whom they’re shooting missiles at). Aside from the elision of three unintended American deaths in drone strikes, President Obama’s portrayal of Anwar Al-Awlaki as an operational leader in AQAP contradicts the opinion of journalists and experts on the region.
  • The civilian casualties straw man. President Obama addressed concerns over civilian casualties, but mostly used an argument I ranted about last week: that sending in ground troops or using other weapons systems would result in more casualties. This is a hard argument to make when you haven’t shared criteria that confirms the real threat posed by the targets of these strikes. Lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar takes on this issue in a striking op-ed in the New York Times today.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.

But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.

Nabila doesn’t know who Mr. Obama is, or where the Hellfire missile that killed her grandmother came from. As she grows older, she will learn about the idea of justice. But how will she be able to grasp it if she herself has been denied this basic right?

  • Exaggerating the level of congressional oversight. It’s positive that the president wants to engage Congress more on oversight, though some of the proposals on the table (like a FISA-like drone court) raise other concerns. But his claims about existing congressional oversight are exaggerated. Conor Friedersdorf does a good job dismantling oversight claims, pointing out that a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has more access than any other committee, wouldn’t be relentlessly pushing the administration for information if ample oversight existed.
  • How do we know when it’s over? President Obama rightly said that we shouldn’t be pursuing a “boundless ‘global war on terror.’” But what he didn’t offer was any indication of when this targeted killing policy would wind down. How do we know that the US government has killed enough terrorists to declare victory (especially hard when the policy helps create more terrorists)? Military officials painted a disturbing picture at a Senate hearing last week, estimating the war on Al Qaeda could last another ten to twenty years and claiming the authority to strike terrorists anywhere and everywhere.

This speech will help spark much-needed debate on the administration’s counterterrorism policy, and lays the groundwork for some efforts at additional congressional oversight when the House votes on the National Defense Authorization Act in a few weeks. It’s clear that we need to keep pushing the administration and Congress for an actual plan to rein in this misguided policy.